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Bonds Not Broken

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The crisp snap sent John careening off Rolan, stumbling, even crawling, until he had the King’s head cradled in his lap. “Goddess! Jesse!”

Companions were screaming, people were running, and Healers were dashing towards them, but it was too late, far too late. John leaned and kissed him on the forehead, shutting his shocked eyes with his other hand.

Just a stupid accident, and the Healers jerked him away, yelling, but he simply lay on the cobble stones. He thought maybe Rolan was talking to him, but his mind was full of nothing but grief, horror.

It tore at him, leaving him breathless. Someone slapped him, and he lost his mind, fighting and screaming. He never saw the hoof that clipped him in the head.

:Wake, Chosen.:

Mind clear, John surged from the bed. Three steps later, he fell to his knees on the floor. The ache in his heart and mind let him know that it hadn’t been a dream. King Jesse was dead. The bell had rung.

A Healer came inside the room and stopped right inside the door. “Herald John, how are you feeling?”

“Like someone smacked me upside the head.” John didn’t bother touching the lump. He was pretty sure Rolan’s hoofprint would be there awhile. Grief made talking difficult, but he shoved the words out. The healer looked scared, but relief quickly followed. He helped John to his feet.

“The King is dead.” The words couldn’t encompass the horror of it.

“Yes. I’m sorry. There was nothing we could do.” The healer got him sitting down on the bed. “Hold still.” He put his hand on John’s head. Warmth spread down, encasing his head and neck. He breathed through it, glad when the pounding eased up. It did nothing for the lack of his King, however.

“It never should’ve happened.” John watched the events play out in his mind. They’d been riding, enjoying the sunrise on the first day of Fall, and the heat had finally broken. Jesse had snuck out before his courtiers could catch him and bombard him with problems, and riding was the perfect way to keep them at bay.

John had grinned, eager to follow, as usual, and for once, Rolan had been amendable. Joss was her beautiful self, tossing her head and prancing. Jesse’s laughter had been almost non-stop as John showed off the tricks he’d learned a horseback long before he’d crossed into Valdemar.

“I’ll leave to you the fancy riding!” Jess had shouted over his shoulder as John hung upside down off the saddle.

And Joss slipped on a puddle of water that had slicked up the cobblestone path near the stable. Jesse over-corrected – he wasn’t the best rider by far – and Joss jerked upright at the same time. The King took what should have been an easy tumble and landed on his head, snapping his neck. The air in John’s lungs wouldn’t move as the images froze in his mind.

The King was dead.

“A horrible accident. The country is grieving.”

John had to get away. “Thank you.” And he fled. The Circle would need him. The new queen would need him. Even if it was his fault.

:Finally, you are thinking.:

Wishing he had a deep bond with Rolan was a well-traveled road that he didn’t bother going down again. John’s gift of Mindspeech wasn’t strong enough to allow him to reply except in spoken words. He brushed off his Whites as he hurried from the building, shocked to see the sun had gone down.

Sorrow hung in the air, every person he saw refused to meet his eyes, and all of Haven seemed to be holding its breath. A Companion neighed, but he didn’t turn towards the field. There would be no comfort for him there.

The palace was dead quiet, and he made for the council chamber, not knowing what else to do. He’d hoped to find the King’s Seneschal first, but it was to his great misfortune that he found Jesse’s Hardornen wife first. She was wailing, and she threw herself at him.

“You! You were supposed to keep him safe!” She beat at his chest with her bare palms. “You and that white demon! He’s gone. Dead! Do not disgrace this palace with your disgusting self! Damn shaych! I had to put up with you while he was alive, but I’ll not have you pretending at his funeral!”

Stunned, horrified, he did nothing but take it. He’d known she hated him, but the depth of it was alarming. It was the queen who pulled her mother away. “Mother! Stop it!”

Everyone heaved out a big breath. Jesse’s wife looked him up and down. “King’s Own meant nothing when it mattered!”

“Mother, Herald John is now the Queen’s Own, and I won’t have you doing this. Go to our apartments and rest. I’ll come get you later.” The queen wrapped her hand into John’s. “Go!”

She fled, crying loud enough to make servants stare, and John met the eyes of his queen. “I’m sorry.”

Queen Morgan had tear tracks down her face. “We must bury him, and then we’ll grieve.”

“Yes, your majesty,” John said, nearly wincing at the title. “You’ll need your Whites.”

“I have another year in Grays, as you well know, and I won’t cheat myself of that time.” Morgan was confident. She was strong, independent, and he took great pride in her. “John, I’m sorry.”

“It’s my place to console you.” He squeezed her hand, and he had to warn her. “Your mother is going to demand the Regency.”

“That won’t happen.” Morgan shook her head, pulling him into a hug. “We met while you were at the Healers. I’m the queen. I’m seventeen, old enough. The council won’t allow a Hardornen noblewoman, who isn’t even Chosen, to rule Valdemar.”

“I’m not arguing. I’m telling you what she’ll do behind your back.” John felt like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the room. Jesse was dead. His king was dead. That was all that he could focus on, playing over and over in his head.

He wasn’t the King’s Own any longer, and never would be again. It didn’t seem real, not even as he went through the motions with the other members of the council to make the proper arrangements for both a funeral and a coronation.

It seemed forever before he had time for a bath and fresh Whites, and he didn’t consider sleep. Rolan was a heavy presence in his mind, looking through his eyes, but there were no more words. John wasn’t going to the field to speak to him.

There was nothing to say. John had his duty, and he would never let his King down, not even in death.

The King was dead. Long live the Queen. John felt like half his soul had been chopped off, and he ended up after the funeral in an empty Companion’s stall, drunk on his ass, not caring that he was probably needed elsewhere.

It was no surprise when he woke to find Rolan’s long nose in his face. “Sheka,” he whispered, not trying to touch him. There would be no comfort found in his Companion of many years.

:You have duties.:

“I need to grieve! Can you give me that? He was my right arm!” John felt his grief ease away, replaced with nothing but anger. He glared up at his Companion. “You Chose me to be King’s Own. The king is dead!”

:Queen Morgan will need you.:

Rolan didn’t care, not really. He never had. He’d never radiated anything but a mild disapproval and demands that John do his duty. His duty! “I loved him. We were lifebonded!”

:You were not. I have told you this. He was your friend, your king, nothing more.:

John had to rub his aching chest. It felt like parts inside were missing. “You don’t know anything,” he muttered. He used a bucket to get to his feet and started for his rooms. Rolan didn’t follow, and John didn’t care. He knew the truth, and he pulled out his necklace to wrap his hand around the ring.

The ring was gold, made to look like a small crown, engraved with the words ‘King’s Own.’ Jesse had given it to him on the day of his marriage to a rich, noble Hardornen woman that the council had chosen for him. What they had, what they were to each other, had changed, become something different. And John had taken what was given to him.

Because he couldn’t ask for it all. There had to be an heir, and Jesse was a Herald, bound by oaths and loyalties. But John’s was the King’s Own. Jesse was all John had, and now, John had nothing. Rolan didn’t care. All he cared about was John following orders, serving Valdemar.

John had done his job and done it well. They’d spent nearly every waking moment together for twenty-seven years, but not the nights, no longer the nights once Jesse had married.

“I’m not the Queen’s Own,” John mumbled, knowing that truth in his heart. He had his head down, and he nearly plowed over another Herald near his rooms. Looking up, he glared. “Shaw.”

“Council meeting today. Better eat and bathe.” She took a sniff with a grimace. “Pull it together, John. She needs you.”

“Go to her then.” John loved Morgan, but he had no interest in serving her. He’d been her Uncle John since birth, and he wanted to be that, nothing else. “She listens to you in all matters.”

“I’m not the Monarch’s Own.” Shaw shrugged. “I’ll have food sent up.” She went without another word, and John slammed his door, hoping she could hear it. They were friends, adversaries, and he had no doubt she blamed him for the King’s death.

A stupid accident, but it had cost the Circle dearly. Not only was King Jesse dead, but his Companion, Joss, was gone as well. John ripped his Whites removing them, not caring. Joss and Jesse had had a true Companion’s bond, deep and loving. The three of them had spent many a lazy evening in the Companion’s Field, and John had never felt a lack, even when Rolan declined to join them.

When King Jesse was too busy, John had looked after Joss as well as Rolan. John splashed into the tub, scrubbing his face and wondering how many tears he could shed before there were no more. They were gone. He’d been left behind, and now there were choices to ponder, decisions to make, advice to give. He was the Monarch’s Own, no matter who was king or queen of the land.

There was food on the bed when he emerged, and he ate because his body demanded it. When nothing remained, he had to face another set of silver-edged Whites and the responsibility that came with them.

His quarters were messy, and he put off the responsibility by dressing in bed clothes and starting to clean. Dirty Whites went down the shaft, and he put random weapons in their places on the walls. All he owned were clothes, weapons, and the odd trinket. His Shin’a’in bow had a place of pride on the wall, and he longed for the days he’d amazed Jesse with his ability to shoot small game with it.

Jesse had laughed at him and all his weapons, especially after a would-be assassin had broken down John’s door one night. John had been awake, reading, and the assassin had looked at all the weapons lining the walls before deciding to flee. John almost smiled as he hefted his throwing axe. It was balanced perfectly, a gift from his King.

Throwing it into the door was the act of a child, but John enjoyed it. His long sword had a small nick in the blade, and John took care of it before hanging it back on the wall. He hadn’t used it in longer than he cared to think.

Rolan had plucked John from the Horse Fair near Sweetsprings, and he had been yearmates with five others, including the Heir to the throne. John and Jesse had taken one look and become friends without a word between them. Jesse excelled at the law, governance, and anything that was made up of words. John had a Gift of weaponry. Any weapon, even if he’d never wielded it, was dangerous, even deadly, in his hand.

The Weaponmaster had proclaimed them two halves of a whole, and John had devoted himself to his prince. Jesse had managed to get John in trouble often enough. John remembered fondly fighting off an assassin with the dinner plates at hand because Jesse had challenged him not to use his knives.

They’d laughed for hours. Of course, everyone else had been appalled, but John’s Gift was such that anything and everything became a deadly weapon, and that assassin hadn’t stood a chance of succeeding. Jesse had understood that better than anyone. John wiped a tear off his face.

It’d been Jesse who had pulled John down in the hay and kissed him senseless. Joss had neighed out a warning, but it was too late to shut the barn door. Rolan had given him a stern lecture, but when Jesse had snuck into John’s room later that night, John had ignored every word of it.

Shaking his head, John got up off his knees and finished cleaning. His head felt stuffed with pain, and it was past the time when he should’ve been advising the queen. She deserved nothing but the best. That, he knew, wasn’t him, but Rolan would have his way.

He was down to his last set of clean Whites, but his hand fell away from them. Instead, he went to bed, pulling the blankets up over his head. Falling asleep was easier than it should have been.

:Chosen!:

John jerked awake, head pounding, mouth tasting like dirt, and he staggered up before he realized that it had been Rolan yelling at him. He slumped back down on the bed. Six days since the accident, and each one had been torture, watching everyone go on with their lives while he wanted to die.

Grief was still everywhere he looked, but everyone was pushing on with the business of Valdemar. John had left two council meetings early to wander out to King Jesse’s crypt and cry. Rolan had woken him both times with a hooved nudge and disapproving eyes.

Yesterday, John had watched as the council looked to him to lead, and the Queen’s mother had glared daggers at him for two solid hours before he’d excused himself. This time, he gone to the nearest tavern and put away enough ale to make him forget.

How he’d gotten back to his rooms was a mystery. He breathed through his mouth, mind foggy, senses reeling. He needed strong drink and a place to hide from his Companion. A knock on the door sent him bumbling that direction.

Queen Morgan stood in the open doorway, staring at him as he flailed back to his bed. Standing wasn’t possible. “Uncle John, you just can’t do this, can you?”

Her compassion broke him. “I can’t even seem to try,” he whispered, hating that tears were running down his face again. “You know I love you, Morgan.”

“I know.” She tilted her head; her own eyes full of tears. “I can almost see the hurt in your heart. I’m pulling Shaw to the council with me. Take all the time you need.”

She was a better woman than he was a man. John took a deep breath. “The council expects me to lead Valdemar. I won’t do that. I won’t take the kingdom from you.”

“I was never worried about that. But I dealt with my mother’s ambitions, and now I’m dealing with you. Don’t come to another meeting if you can’t act as Queen’s Own. I’m the monarch now, no one else.”

“Long may you reign.” John prayed for that. “Rolan needs to Choose someone else.”

With two long strides, she grabbed him by the chin. “Don’t even whisper those words. I can’t lose you as well!”

Astonished at the strength he’d known she had, he nodded. “I’ll stay on this side of the Havens, but I can’t promise anything else.”

She gave him a kiss on the forehead. “Do what you need to do and be safe.” And she was gone from his room, shutting the door firmly.

John sat there until he grew cold, only then going to bathe. Another meal was on the bed when he finished, and he ate because it was necessary. When he finally had a bit of strength, he dressed in casual clothes, not his Whites, and went down to the stables. It was time to gird his loins and take on his Companion.

Rolan met him there, fire practically shooting from his blue eyes. :Chosen, you must attend her!:

His anger and his pain kept spinning him in circles, but he was certain of one thing. “I am not your Chosen, not any longer.”

:Do not be dramatic. It does not suit you.:

“I gave everything to my King willingly, easily, but he’s gone, and I can’t – won’t - do this.” John didn’t care if he sounded crazy. He knew the truth. “You are not my Chosen!” he yelled. Companions began to neigh, and one kicked the side of the stable. “Rolan is not my Chosen!”

:That is not your decision!: Rolan stomped his hoof, neck arching.

“Yes, it is, damn your eyes.” John turned on his heel and went to pack a few things in a bag. He only had two outfits that weren’t Whites, both dark brown. News traveled fast, and at least three Heralds tried to stop him, tried to reason with him. He ignored their words, pushing their hands away. It wasn’t until the Captain of the Palace Guard stepped into his room that he even looked up from his task of choosing which weapons to take, deciding on the short sword and looking for his back sheath.

It was Captain Fusco, a friend, but it would make no difference. John trusted him, and that was no doubt why they’d sent him. It wasn’t going to work. “What? Do you want?”

“Monarch’s Own, please, let’s talk this through.” Fusco had a bottle of wine with him. “We’ll drink, talk, figure this out.”

“No.” John couldn’t even look at his silver-trimmed Whites. He was finished with that. “I’m not a Herald any longer. I repudiate Rolan, all of this!”

There were gasps from the hallway. “I don’t care if he Chose me. I don’t Choose him any longer!” John’s anger smothered his grief, for now. “It wasn’t even a lifebond, according to Rolan!”

Fusco’s eyes widened. “John, your friends want to help you. Let me help.”

His real concern made John’s eyes tear up, but he didn’t cry. He slung his bag on his shoulder, took his bow off the wall, and made sure his necklace was tucked under his shirt. “I’m leaving this place. Don’t try to stop me.”

Quickly, John went past him, and he didn’t look at any of the many Heralds in the hallways that led to door. They were all shocked, grieving in their own way, and he had nothing more of his heart to give them. He shut the door that led outside firmly, sure of his decision.

Rolan was there in the courtyard, waiting for him, and John didn’t meet those blue eyes. “You never cared, Rolan. Our bond is nothing. Yank it out and find someone new.”

:You are being selfish.:

John figured that was true. He didn’t even hesitate over his next words. “Go away. I repudiate you, Rolan.”

“Havens! John, please!” It was the Weaponmaster, Herald Hersh, rushing to him as Heralds, Healers, and Bards began to fill the courtyard. Their eyes were wide, and whispers flew among them.

Hersh was a good man, a good Herald, and they were close, having spent years sparring. Hell, John loved him, but even that wouldn’t change his mind. Stopping long enough to say goodbye would have to be enough.

“I’m leaving. The Queen deserves someone better than me.” John meant every word of that, and he pitched his voice so everyone could hear.

“John, there is no Herald better than you.” Hersh pulled him into a hard hug. “Don’t go. Please.”

“My grief for her father will always stand between us. She can’t rule like that. Rolan will choose another to help her.” John ignored the looming Companion. “Rolan and I aren’t bonded like the rest of you. It’s not his way.”

“Tearing that bond out may well kill you.” Hersh actually had a tear in his eye. “The Circle can’t bear another loss.”

“The Circle will survive.” John pushed him slightly away, sure of this decision. “I’m nothing but a Shin’a’in half-breed shaych that Rolan picked up at the Horse Fair. Take care of the Queen.” John pushed his final words at everyone, Heralds and Companions alike, who were all watching him, measuring his words.

:You are a Herald! Act like one!:

“I’m the King’s Own, and I refuse to be anything else.” John sketched a salute and went for the side gate – the one Heralds used to come and go. No one dropped a word into the silence. He threaded his way between the crowd that had gathered, but not a soul tried to stop him now. The guard at the gate saluted him, and John shuddered as he started the long walk down the Hill.

He couldn’t help but remember the first time he’d come through the gate with Rolan, young and so eager to learn what his future would hold. From that moment to this one seemed like a mere blink of his eye.

And it was done.

Chapter Text

No Shin’a’in walked for any distance without a damn good reason and usually complaining every step of the way. John hadn’t even considered buying a horse as he made his way through Haven. After years of riding Companions, his standards were far too high to be purchased at a local stable.

Finally, he left Haven behind, standing on the Trade Road. He had a feeling that he should go North. It would’ve been easier if he wasn’t still been muddled from too much ale and not enough sleep. People streamed by him, both directions, going about their business, and he couldn’t make up his mind.

His heart ached, but he lifted his face to the sun and tried to listen to his Goddess. She might agree that North was best.

“Excuse me! Can you move, please?”

John jumped when a nudge pushed at him, and he whirled, ready to fight. The mule looked very unimpressed with him. Looking above the team of mules, John saw a small man waving his hand at him.

“Move? Blocking the trade road isn’t allowed!”

“Sorry!” John got out of the way. He’d talk to his Goddess later. It wasn’t as if she ever replied. He was too far from the plains, and he was just a half-breed orphan. Wrapping his hand around his necklace, he sighed deeply. He was an idiot, but he wasn’t going back.

The mules, pulling a good-sized trade wagon, clanked by him, moving a bit faster than he could walk, and he reconsidered his pride. Before he could decide what to do, the mules stopped again.

“I couldn’t help but notice you’re a brawny fellow, and you seem to have no idea where to go, so might I suggest you travel with me?” The man didn’t get down from his wagon seat. He squinted at him from behind wire glasses. “I’m heading north to the border and then wintering at Forst Reach.”

Maybe the Goddess was listening. John shrugged like he didn’t care. “If I’m going to keep you safe, you should pay me.” Sounding eager would be a mistake. All Shin’a’in were born traders.

“But you need a ride.” The man was no fool. “And a big man like you is going to eat your daily wage.”

“I’ll hunt for game.” John gestured with his bow. “And I’ll drive the wagon.” He didn’t know how, but he was a fast learner.

“And you’ll run errands and take care of the mules?” This guy was pushing his luck.

“You drive a hard bargain!” John thought this might be a nice change from endless meetings, but his heart clenched when he remembered his King’s smile.

“Well, come on.” The man clucked at his mules to get them moving again. John looked back once, but that life was over. He grabbed a handhold and climbed up the wagon, dropping into the seat. They exchanged a cautious look.

“Harold Finch.” He jiggled the reins, and his mules went a bit faster.

John had to think about his answer as he was a Herald no longer. “John shena Tale’sedrin.” The name felt strange in his mouth. He wasn’t sure he was Tale’sedrin any longer, either.

“Well, take the reins, John. I’ll make us some lunch.” And Finch squeezed himself through the hatch into the wagon, leaving John with the reins. John had never driven a wagon, but he didn’t think the mules needed much help. He put his pack by his feet and his bow on a handy hook.

He was going somewhere, and he honestly didn’t care where he ended up. Since the mules were fine, he poked around in his own head, very aware that his meager bond with Rolan was still there. He’d probably pass out when Rolan tore it away.

:I did not think you were so foolish, Chosen.:

Shutting his eyes, John pushed at him, reinforcing his shields, trying to wall Rolan off. He wasn’t entirely sure it worked. He probably should’ve done something unforgivable, but the very idea made him wince. Even though his King was dead, John didn’t want to disgrace him that way.

“Sleeping on the job already?”

John cracked open an eye. “The mules seem to have it in hand.” He took the offered basket of food so Harold could clamber back into position. “Thank you.”

“You’re very polite for a Shin’a’in savage.” Harold’s eyes seemed to challenge him even if his tone was mild.

“And you’re very limber for a cripple.” John never pulled his return blows. Harold’s right leg was twisted in an odd way. “Is that why there are so many handholds on this wagon?”

“Yes! It seemed prudent, considering my leg doesn’t agree with traveling.” Harold clearly hadn’t been insulted. He pulled his leg to settle it and took the basket back. “Hungry?”

“Starved.” John accepted his share, and they ignored the reins together. When the food was gone, John sighed at the pace of them. “You sure we’ll get there by snowfall?”

“They’re slow but sensible.” Harold tucked the basket behind his legs, under the bench. He had quick hands, wire spectacles perched on his nose, and his clothes spoke of a life in the trades. He wasn’t rich, but he was fed, and his mules, while slow, were quality animals. “I can see that you’re tired. Go sleep inside, if you need to. I’m used to driving all day.”

Surprised at this generosity, John hesitated. “I should earn my supper.”

Harold patted him on the knee. “There’ll be time for that, John shena Tale’sedrin.”

Hearing his whole name jolted him. He looked down at his knee and fled, using the handholds to drop off and then swinging in the back door easily. He was too big a man to fit through the small door behind the seat.

The wagon was large, comfortable, full of bits and bobs. Harold was a tinker, explaining why he was traveling. Making sure it was out of the way – he didn’t want to trip Harold - John found a place for his bag and bow. He’d go hunting later to help earn his way.

The bed was a clever contraption, and it pulled down from the ceiling on springs with a joint. John was sure Harold had made them. His feet hung off the bed, and the ride was far from comfortable, swaying from side to side, but sleep grabbed him, and his dreams were full of angry people shouting at him and white horses falling down.

Hitting the floor of the wagon woke him up, and he snapped a knife into his hand as he rose to his feet. The door yanked open, dim light streaming inside, and he had no idea where he was. Was he drunk again?

“Did you sleep well?”

And the spell broke, leaving John without his King, traveling to nowhere with a cripple. John put the knife away, but he saw that Harold respected it. “I suppose I did. Are we stopping for the night?”

“This is my usual spot.” Harold nodded, voice cautious. “Are you well?”

John didn’t answer, making very sure not to knock into him as he got out of the wagon to take care of the mules. The sun wasn’t quite down yet, and this was a good spot to camp: water, firewood, and a ready-made firepit. He didn’t ask questions. He just got to work, pushing aside his feelings. It’d been awhile since he’d been on the road, but he remembered.

Harold didn’t talk, even though it was clear his leg hurt from driving the wagon. John expected him to complain, but he didn’t do more than give a grunt a time or two. A quick trip to the stream and a pot of water went on the fire. John went to get his bow once the mules were set with buckets of water and grass.

“I’ll get some meat,” he said, not sure if he needed to ask or wait to be told.

“No females, please,” Harold said, not looking up from his task.

It was a reasonable request, and John nodded, but he wasn’t sure how he’d tell the boy rabbits from the girl ones. The sun was about a half a candlemark from down, and John went quickly, finding cover and waiting. When a rabbit appeared for the dew on the grass, he tilted his head, not sure, but liking the size of it.

John took the shot, went to scoop up the rabbit, and was relieved to see it was a male. Quickly, he gutted it. He stripped the usable meat and put it in the skin, burying the offal and bones. The Goddess was good to him, and Harold looked up when he walked back into the camp.

“That was quick.”

“Just lucky, I guess.” He sliced the meat into small chunks, dropping them to the stew. Harold opened a small pouch of herbs to add, and he tossed John a few vegetables to chop. John did so quickly, cleaned his knife, and tucked it away. “Drink?”

Harold disappeared into his wagon, returning with a jug of ale and a clever folding chair that he put near the fire. “Ah, that’s better,” he said, sitting and stretching out his bad leg. “I’m afraid I only have the one chair.”

“It’s fine.” John found a few more things to do, wishing desperately that Jesse was here to share this adventure. He let the grief shake him as he ran a rag over the harness, getting the sweat and dirt off the high-quality leather. “Do you have grain for the mules?” he asked when his voice came back.

“Of course!” Harold showed him where it was kept in the wagon and showed him a few other things, like a scythe to gather grasses for fodder. “I have everything you could need. Please ask.”

John would consider it. He glanced over him again, taking in the expensive trews in the latest style, vest, and well-made shirt. They were cut in the style of a trader, but Harold clearly had coin to spend. “You’re a tinker?”

They went back to the fire, and only after Harold had sat down did he answer. “Not exactly. I travel from village to village, and people with problems come to me for solutions.”

“Sounds like dirty work.” John was a bit confused at the mere idea.

“It can be. I don’t usually do the actual work. I find solutions, give them plans to follow through with, but I can fix most anything mechanical.” Harold gave the stew a stir. “I get paid in chickens far too often.”

“I look forward to eating them.” John squatted near the fire and took a drink of ale. “Get robbed much?”

“There are usually men about who need a job, so I hire early and often.” Harold shrugged. “My last man left me almost a moon ago. He thought it’d be amusing to knock me down and take my coin.”

John was surprised at his visceral reaction. “I can go back for him,” he growled.

“No need. I buried him myself.” Harold fussed about, lighting a few lanterns and getting bowls and spoons. John just watched him, reevaluating. Full dark settled around them, and John didn’t feel the need to talk. He sat by the fire, ate what was given to him, and helped clean up.

Harold retired to his wagon not long after, leaving John a bedroll and more blankets than he needed. It was easy to see that Harold wanted him to stay, not disappear into the night, and John promised to sleep on the floor in the wagon if it began to rain.

He wouldn’t, though. He’d crawl under the wagon, if need be. Tonight, sleeping by the fire would be fine, and he listened to the night. Even though it wasn’t many miles, Haven was far behind him. He dozed, occasionally nudging at the fire.

It was the first night since Jesse died that he wasn’t in a meeting until dawn, drunk, or both and there wasn’t enough ale left to get the job done. He drank it anyway, sharpened his knives, and stared into the fire, desperately trying to not think. He’d promised Morgan that he wouldn’t kill himself like his aching heart demanded, but if it happened out here on the road, he’d go to his Goddess with no regrets.

:She has no patience for fools.:

Rubbing his face with his hands, John missed everyone but Rolan. So many years, and John didn’t remember many words from him that weren’t meant to drive him in the direction Rolan wanted him to go. Jesse had never quite understood because he had a full and loving bond with Joss.

John had tried to explain, but Jesse had been unconvinced. Then, late in his first year, he’d found a dusty book on Companions in the library. The words had been hard, but he’d worked at it. He could speak four languages and write in Shin’a’in, but Valdemaran was difficult. He’d needed Jesse help learning to read and write in it, and he still did his poor best.

The truth was right there on the faded parchment. Rolan was a special Companion, born in the Grove, with abilities that other Companions didn’t have. That had made sense.

But Rolan didn’t Choose once. He Chose over and over again, finding new Heralds for the crown. If the Monarch’s Own died, Rolan would Choose again, sometimes with Heralds who already had Companions. Rolan’s bond would take, and the other Companion would have to find someone else. Rolan was the king stallion, and his bond was more important. John and Jesse had understood then that he would never have the closeness that the other Trainees had with their Companions.

Joss had comforted him. She’d found him crying in a stall, going down so he could snuggle into her side. Rolan had come upon them there, and John had expected something, anything, only to see him turn away.

If only his Mindspeech had been more powerful, then he could’ve known why Rolan didn’t even seem to like him. Was it because he was shaych? Shin’a’in? But then why had Rolan Chosen him?

:I Chose you because you were the best for the King.:

John lashed back at him. “Choose someone good for Morgan. Leave me the hell alone!” And this time he didn’t bother building more shields. He tore them down and threw all his anger and pain at the bond.

If he was going to be miserable, so was Rolan.

Before the sun was up, John restocked the wood they’d used and began getting the mules ready. Harold joined him soon enough, handing him a basket of easy to eat foods. “Do you need me to check the harness?”

John wasn’t insulted. He was new at this, and he was certain it showed. “Yes.” He managed that one word and ate quickly while Harold made sure the mules were harnessed correctly and backed them up using just his voice.

“We’re old friends,” Harold said, giving them each a treat before securing the final buckles. “Ask them nicely, and they do their best. Hit them, be rough with them, and they’ll hate you forever.”

It didn’t sound like a warning, more like good advice. John nodded, going to put out the remnants of the fire and stow away the bedroll and a few other things.

“Tonight, we’ll stay near an inn, and you can get a proper bath, if you like.” Harold sighed. “I wish we had time for tea this morning, but we need to get moving.”

John would remember to put the kettle on from now on, and he helped him double-check everything and swung up in the seat. He took up the reins, trying to hold them like Harold did. Harold looked up at him. “Good enough. I’ll be in back. Keep to the right at the fork.”

Nodding, John waited until he was sure Harold was ready, and then chirped at the mules. They were moving, not fast, but they picked up speed as they went, happy in their work. John forced his shoulders to relax, took several deep breaths, and did nothing but stare at the backs of the mules.

The sun came up, and it might’ve been Fall, but it was hot. He almost wished for rain because it would match his mood. He braced his feet against the front board, stretching his back. Maybe he could buy a horse to ride. The little door behind opened, and Harold handed him a canteen.

“Thanks.”

“Stop at midday to water the mules and take a break.” Harold didn’t smile or pretend to be nice, and it was a relief. This was a job, and it’d keep him moving, if slowly.

The mules knew the place to stop, and John wondered how many years Harold had been traveling these roads. So far, a few people had gone by, but no one had even looked his direction. The road was empty in comparison to how it would be after harvest. John got down with a small groan and a long stretch.

First, he got a bucket – Harold had plenty - and watered the mules, then he washed up before taking the offered food from Harold with a nod of thanks.

“The mules give a man plenty of time to think,” Harold said, putting his little chair in the shade and sitting down to eat. John joined him, glad to sit in the grass and stretch out his legs. Harold pushed some bread at him. “Eat. We have a long day ahead of us.”

Shrugging, John ate, before leaning back flat in the thick grass, pillowing his head on his hands. Good Goddess, he missed Jesse like a hole in his chest, and he shut his eyes.

“What do we have here? Chickees for the pluckin’?” A strange man’s mocking voice brought John up off the ground in one smooth move. He flicked a knife into his hand as he stepped in front of Harold.

“We don’t want trouble,” Harold said, not moving from his chair, “but you can see that if you do, he’d be happy to oblige.”

There were three of them, but even on horseback they were no challenge, and John would keep his bow closer to hand in the future. He narrowed his eyes, assessing their weaknesses.

“Just one feller, Pa.” The young man glanced at his dad, waiting for orders.

John knew who to kill first now.

“Please knock them out,” Harold said, drawling out the words as if he were bored. “I prefer you not kill them. We don’t have time to bury them.”

“That’ll cost extra,” John growled, not taking his eyes off them.

They exchanged a look, and suddenly, they were leaving. One of them spit in Harold’s direction, and John scooped up a stone to strike the man’s horse directly on the arse. The horse bolted away, and the rest followed.

“Thank you,” Harold said, taking out a handkerchief and wiping his brow.

“I should’ve been more vigilant. My apologies.” John was ashamed. He’d let his grief make him forget his damn job. Angry now at himself, he watched them until they were out of sight. “I’ll do better.”

Harold didn’t reply, just taking his items to the wagon. “I’ll drive.” He got them on the road quickly, getting more speed from the mules than John had. John retrieved his bow, a few arrows, and sat next to Harold to sharpen his throwing axe.

It was real now. He was doing this, protecting Harold. When they arrived at Forst Reach, he’d consider his options, maybe he’d buy a good horse and lose himself in the mountains, but for now, he’d take care of Harold.

“I’ve never had a hired man scare off some rowdies with nothing but a knife and his brutal cheekbones.” Harold sounded very serious. “I may have to give you that raise.”

The drawled words almost made John smile, and then it crashed into him. It hadn’t been a lifebond with Jesse. If it had been, he’d never smile again. He swallowed hard, keeping his howl of misery in his throat. Damn Rolan for being right. “I’m going to stretch my legs,” he growled. Taking his bow, he dropped off the wagon, pacing behind it, not caring that he was eating the dust of mules.

He felt dangerously angry and almost wished someone would try to rob them. Pushing himself into a slow trot that he’d learned as a boy when he ran after horses, he kept up with the wagon. He shoved his anger at the bond with Rolan over and over again, letting him feel it.

It was a surprise when they reached a small village, and he was sure he looked like a raging idiot, breathing hard from anger. He certainly felt like one. Harold drove into the middle of town and stopped at the inn. John went to help him get down, stopped by a sharp look. Still, Harold swayed on his feet, hanging on to one of the many handles, for several moments as a stable boy raced up to bargain for fodder.

John watched Harold pay the lad, but he didn’t pull the wagon around back. No, Harold began to transform the wagon into a small shop, and John stared in surprise before jumping in to help. He thought the innkeeper might come out to yell, even though the mules had been taken into the stable by a troop of lads.

“I’m a regular,” Harold reassured him. “Make sure to get a drink.”

“Mother hen,” John grumbled, but he was glad when Harold started giving him precise directions on how to lower sides and secure boards. The villagers were milling about, pointing and starting a ragged line. John put his bow away and strapped his short sword on his back. Harold raised his eyebrows but said nothing about it.

“Are you ready, Master Harold?” A small lad almost bowled Harold over. “I brought my broken toy!”

Harold gasped in surprise. “You broke a toy? I’m shocked. You know it’ll cost you. Nothing free in this world!”

“I have two eggs!”

“A princely sum, surely one will suffice.” Harold gave the boy a gentle smile. “Let me get my chair.”

John got it for him. He was trying to do three things simultaneously, and a part of his brain couldn’t reconcile the suspicious looks he was receiving with the fact he was a Herald. The King’s Own, but these people didn’t know that, and he wasn’t, not any longer.

Just a dirty savage, covered with road dust, with a job to do that wasn’t a popular one. No one liked the toughs that terrorized the villagers. They couldn’t know that he’d never do that. He was big, strong, and had a weapon. It was enough to scare them.

Finally, it seemed Harold was ready, and he took a seat inside his small shop. One person at a time would enter, and John would make sure of it. Several of the young men did some pushing, but no one was serious.

“Oh, John,” Harold’s voice carried. “Could you get us some ale and snacks from inside?”

“Sure, Master Harold,” John growled. He washed off in the horse trough before going to the inn. Harold was in no danger from the boy with two eggs. John liked eggs, and his stomach was complaining as the serving girl loaded him up with food, following him out with a pitcher of ale and two mugs.

She poured, gave him a wink, and dropped a kiss on Harold’s cheek. “Glad you’re back, Master Harold.”

Harold blushed. “It was bound to happen, Missy!”

People tittered, and John took his mug to a comfortable spot to lean, watch, and eat a little food. Harold asked him for this or that every now and again, and the afternoon become the evening before the line was finished with them.

Only then did Harold get up and take a long stretch. He finished his most recent mug of spiced tea. “We’ll button up for tonight.”

“I can sleep with the wagon, if you want a real bed?” John had no idea what was right here.

“To share with three others? I think not. I’ll sleep in the wagon. You get a bath and bed.” Harold stretched his leg several times. “There’s no danger to me in this village.”

John doubted that very much. Harold had coin, and there were always thieves. A bath sounded good, but then John would find a spot nearby to rest. He did the lion’s share of putting the wagon back to rights and almost made the mistake of helping Harold up the two steps to the inn.

“I’ll be meeting with the town council.” Harold levered his leg up the two steps and went inside with John right at his shoulder. “I run a tab, so please eat and bathe.”

A quick shrug, and John made sure Harold was safe before getting a meal at a table close enough to intervene if necessary. The same young lady brought him food again.

“Don’t worry. Master Harold is safe as houses here.”

“I put the sword away.” John tried not to snarl. She was a friendly lass. He slid a silver across the table. “A bath next, please, and someone to thump the dust from my clothes.”

The coin disappeared quickly. “Yes, sir.” She smiled. “Glad Harold has someone who cares. He’s alone too much that one is.” And she was off towards the kitchen.

John had no idea what she was talking about, but he was glad to see the food she brought; slices of lean meat with thick potatoes and carrots, covered in gravy with bread for sopping. He tucked in and didn’t turn down the bit of cobbler she added to the table.

Satisfied, he followed her directions to the bathhouse. He considered getting fresh clothes from his bag, but these weren’t too dirty.

“Ye got sleep clothes? I’ll warsh these for the morrow, if’n you do.” The bath woman smiled a toothy smile at him.

He gave up. “I’ll get my bag.”

“Good! Only two coppers more!”

John decided he’d been spoiled at the Collegium by the time he returned. She took his dirty clothes with a nod, and he climbed in to wash before switching tubs to soak. It was good to feel clean, but he didn’t want to keep other people from it, so he made quick work of it and returned to the taproom.

Harold was right where John had left him, surrounded by townsmen, and there were papers strewn about the remains of their meal. John got an ale and planned to go sit near the wagon, just somewhere out of the way.

“John! Join us, please!” Harold waved him over.

With a sigh, John went to the empty chair Harold obviously intended for him. “What can I do for you?” He really tried not to growl the words, but this looked depressingly familiar to all the meetings he’d left behind.

“You were in Haven.” Harold took the lead, but all eyes were on John. “Will the Queen be changing tax policies?”

John raised his eyebrows. “I’m just your hired guard.” He saw the flash of disbelief on Harold’s face, so he reluctantly continued, “But rumor was that she was likeminded to follow in her da’s footsteps on most matters.” His heart ached, and he took a big drink.

A chorus of relief went up around the table. Harold nodded. “She is very young to wear the crown.”

Pressing his lips together so he didn’t soundly defend her, John said nothing. An older fellow at the end of the table said, “King Jesse was young when he was tapped. I reckon she’ll do fine. Who’s the Queen’s Own?”

Everyone looked at John, and he felt like that question had scoured him to his soul. He took a drink first. “Dunno,” he choked out.

“The Companions never Choose wrongly, so I’m sure it’s someone competent,” Harold said into the awkward silence. “In my last year as a Blue, the King’s Own was killed in that nasty business on the Karse border, remember?”

Everyone did, but John had no idea who that had been. It must have been right before John was Chosen by Rolan. The group was off, discussing Karse, the border, and the potato crop, so John slipped outside to finish his ale.

:Her name was Kara. She was feisty, and she liked stealing pocket pies for me.:

Rolan’s words tore around in John’s mind. He’d known he wasn’t Rolan’s first, of course, but he hadn’t counted how many Rolan had watched die. He was the first to get away alive, and he was ashamed. His natural compassion for anyone who had lost so many made him take a deep breath.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, sinking down to sit on the step. He had to take a deep breath, but even through this revelation, he wasn’t going back. The Queen would be better served by someone who was devoted to her, not her father.

It came as no surprise that Harold had been with the Blues in his day. He was, after all, a Master, of something, probably engineering. As if thinking of him made him appear, Harold came outside with another ale for him.

“My apologies for putting you on the spot like that.” Harold handed it down to him but didn’t sit down on the step, stretching his back instead. “This close to Haven, you would think they’d have more faith in our Queen.”

“She’ll do well.” John focused on draining his first ale and moving to the next one. Harold didn’t seem inclined to talk, just standing there, and John had to ask, “What are you a Master of?”

“Everything.” Harold chuckled, going back inside, and John took the opportunity to go dig out his bedroll and find a spot for the night. It was tempting to drink the place dry, but he couldn’t do that to Harold. John ended up on top of the wagon. The roof was curved like many traveling wagons, but the sides were flat because of Harold’s modifications, giving him just enough room to lay his bedroll.

If he fell out of this bed, it would be quite a drop, but he wasn’t worried. He made sure his bow was close. The noise of the inn and the few lights weren’t enough to keep him awake.

Chapter Text

Years of being with Companions had left John with some behaviors that he had to shrug off quickly. Mules weren’t going to reply, or tell him they were hungry, or demand brushing. Harold gave him an odd look a time or two, and John realized he was waiting to be told.

Harold insisted mules were far superior to horses, and John was reluctant to argue about it. He’d grown up on the backs of horses, and he’d had his favorites. The mules were steady, honest workers, but they weren’t the spirited friends of John’s childhood.

Companions weren’t horses, of course, no matter that was the form they took. John found himself drawn to the stables, just looking at the horses. He wasn’t ready to buy one, which sounded foolish in his head, but it was how he felt.

They’d left not long after lunch, and John shifted on the seat for the tenth time. The mules seemed half-asleep this afternoon. “Are you sure about buying a draft horse?” He made sure his tone was teasing, not accusing.

Clucking at the mules, Harold got them to move a bit faster. “Will you be buying a riding horse?”

“No.” John said it a little sharper than he’d meant to by the look on Harold’s face. “Maybe a donkey.”

Raising his eyebrows, Harold handed him the reins. “With your long legs?”

“It’ll entertain the villagers.” John tried to thread the lines through his fingers like he’d seen Harold do time and again. Harold reached over and gave him a very gentle correction to his thumbs. John nodded, feeling as if his face was burning from the touch.

“I’ll get us something to drink.” Harold scooted through his little door.

John stared down at his hands, wondering what had just happened. The mules eased to a slower speed, and he didn’t push them. They knew he wasn’t going to snap the reins at them. According to Harold, a good driver could feel the mood of his team through the lines. John wondered why the driver didn’t just look at their ears.

The sun started dropping, and John chirped at them, hoping for a little extra speed. Two flicked ears and they ignored him. He sighed. It didn’t seem as if Harold was coming back, and John hoped this village had better food than the last one.

They were still going north, and John hadn’t thought about it until now, but he liked Harold. At first, he’d wanted this to be nothing but a job. Now, he considered Harold a friend, and he needed to keep him safe.

Being a mule driver was quite a step down from Herald, but John had never been impressed with rank. What mattered was helping people, and he’d been happy working with King Jesse for the Kingdom. John had been King’s Own, the highest Herald in the land, but it meant nothing without Jesse to serve.

One of the mules began to toss his head, and John sat up a bit straighter, looking for trouble, but it was just a nosy wolf up on a nearby hill. The road had been busy early in the day, but most folks had headed home by now.

The wolf let out a mournful howl that John felt in his soul. He could feel the weight of his necklace, and his heart hurt. Perhaps he’d could’ve done more good for the people of Valdemar by serving the Queen. Again, he stared down at his hands. Being honest with himself meant recognizing that he wasn’t strong enough to take that path. Rolan was right that John was a coward, running from his pain.

The wolf’s howl trailed away, and John flinched when Harold opened the small door. He had two cups and jug of wine, and John was glad to see it. They didn’t meet each other’s eyes, just drinking and watching the mules while the sun continued its trek.

It was gone into dark when they made the village, and Harold parked the wagon, lanterns swinging, where he wanted. It was John’s job to see to the mules, and he babied them. The stablemaster offered to do it, but John waved him away.

Once again, he was curious as to the other tenants of the stable, so he walked down the row. Mostly draft horses, and the occasional riding horse but a black head with a blaze caught John’s eye, and he went down to see. It was a stallion, and he stomped his hoof in irritation, so John gave him a bit of oats as tribute.

“He’s for sale,” the stablemaster said. He hadn’t been quiet coming over. “Nice mules you got there.”

“They pull the wagon.” John skimmed his hand down the stallion’s neck, judging him. “He should be gelded. Weak hocks, front legs are too far underneath, neck is short: not much good to pass on except his color.”

The stablemaster glared at him. “He’s a fine stallion.”

John shrugged and went back to the mules. He made sure of the water before starting for the inn. Harold waved him to a table, and John joined him, glad to see dinner. The inn was old, cracks in the walls, and a smoky fireplace, but the food was good enough to make up the lack.

“Mary tells me there’s a stallion for sale,” Harold said, pushing the rest of his food at John.

“He should be gelded.” John shook his head, not going to do it, but he accepted the food. “Are you working here, or we just passing through?”

“They’ll be a few people in the morning.” Harold added honey to his tea. “But we’ll leave by noon.” He lowered his voice and leaned in slightly. “This village is rougher than most. I don’t stop unless I have a hired man.”

John’s eyebrows went up. He took a harder look at the people around them, marking a few that he didn’t like the look of. “Good to know.”

Harold fiddled with his tea while John finished eating, and they went out to the wagon together. John hadn’t bothered to ask about a room. Harold hesitated before opening the door. “John, I…”

“What?” John would feel better when he had his sword on his back, and he was in no mood for cosseting.

“Be careful.” Harold went inside, and John got his bedroll and sword, going out to the top of the wagon. The weather was clear, but chilly. He wasn’t worried because he wouldn’t be sleeping. If Harold was cautious, there was a reason.

The inn closed down not long after the moon set, and John watched as they left, some using the back door. Several of them gave him a hard look, and he put his hand on the hilt of his sword, making it a promise.

No one challenged him, and when the village was quiet, he paced around the inn before checking the mules. They nudged at him, and he fed them a little extra while he waited. The stallion protested, but John ignored him, staying in the shadows made by the mules.

His patience was rewarded, and he moved swiftly, meeting them long before they were near the door of the wagon. “Go home,” he growled.

The four of them spread themselves out a bit, hefting their weapons. “Jest walk away,” the tall one spat. “He tain’t worth yer trouble.”

“He pays me well to make sure thugs don’t touch him.” John tugged his axe from his belt, so each hand had a weapon. “And trust me, you won’t be touching him.”

One man broke, rushing him, and John thought the Weaponmaster would’ve laughed his head off at this fellow’s lack of skill. John grinned, standing very still and only moving enough to put him on his back with his sword spinning off into the darkness.

The three still on their feet rushed him all at once, and John applauded their choice.

“Please don’t kill them!”

“Stay in the wagon!” John didn’t turn back to look at him. The door slammed, and John played with them. The dim light of a few lanterns scattered in the village didn’t bother him at all. They tried, he danced among their waving arms, and one by one he put them down. The last man turned as if he might run, but John threw his knife and hit him in the back of the head with the pommel nut.

Silence descended, as he’d cut off their shouts and curses by knocking them out. He swept his sword clean before sheathing it, retrieved his knife and axe, and turned to find Harold was making a stack of their dropped weapons.

“You have a look as if you enjoyed that,” Harold said.

“You have no idea.” John checked the edge of his axe for nicks before going to find some rope. He tied them to the railing in front of the inn. That done, he trotted back to the wagon and accepted a cup of cider from Harold. “You could’ve handled them.”

“Of course.” Harold wandered to a patch of grass, leaned over, and picked up a silver. He tossed it to him. “They left you something for your trouble.”

“Nice of them.” John tucked it away, not sure what to say.

“Thank you, John.” Harold patted him on the arm as he went back inside the wagon. “Try to get some rest. We leave at first light. I won’t stay after that welcome.”

John snorted, crawling back on top of the wagon and sitting on his pallet. It was tempting to untie them and teach them a thing or two. He drank his ale and waited for the sky to turn pink, listening to the men bicker among themselves after they’d woken up.

Perhaps he wasn’t helping with the big problems that Valdemar faced any longer, but he could still make small differences. Getting these four ruffians into a stockade would make this part of the road safer.

It wasn’t much, but right now, John didn’t have more to offer.

They reached the next village not long after midday, and it was just four thatched huts grouped together, not far off the road. There was no inn, no stable, but Harold directed the mules behind the last hut, well away from road traffic, and put on the brake.

“We’ll camp here.” Harold nodded in satisfaction.

John kept his sword on his back, ready for anything, but he could hear the happy sound of children running their direction. A group of villagers came trailing out of nearby field. They were dressed in sturdy farm clothes, not in rags, but some mends among them. The men were fit, and the women smiling, and there were shouts as they spotted the wagon.

“A family?”

“Yes! The harvest looks good this year.” Harold waved his hand at the lean-to John had already spotted tucked back in the trees. “The mules can go there. We’ll need the services of your bow today. Get a young, male deer, if you can.”

The villagers were upon them with gentle back slaps for Harold and whoops of joy, and John slid away to see to the mules. One of the men gave him a hard look, hefting a wood axe, and John respected that. These people were capable of hounding off the occasional brigand.

“You must meet my friend, John shena Tale’sedrin.” Harold dragged the crowd with him. “He’s not my usual hired man. We met near Haven, and he needed a ride north. I convinced him the mules were a fine way to travel!”

“Ah,” one of the older men said. “You look very fierce, Tale’sedrin. We were concerned for our cousin, Harold.” But he stepped forward and offered a small bow. “I’m Joran Garrettson and these are my family: brothers, wives, and such.” He ruffled a small boy’s hair. “We are blessed in knowing you.”

It was the man’s obvious sincerity and politeness that made John’s throat clog. He knew it was for Harold’s sake, but that coupled with Harold’s declaration of their friendship made John lose his words.

“John’s very shy.” Harold broke the awkward moment. “He’s a dab hand with his bow. I expect a deer from him today!”

A cheer went up, and one of the older girls raced to him. “I’ll help with the mules, Tale’sedrin. Can I see your bow?”

John found a ragged smile, more of a grimace, mostly at being called ‘shy.’ “I’ll even let you admire it.” He saw the elder man relax a little at John’s words.

“Come, let’s unload the wagon. I brought the supplies to help with winter and candy for the children.” Harold made another cheer go up. “We must save some for my mules, however.” He looked sternly down at a small boy. “Can you share?”

“If’n I must.” The boy slumped. Harold grinned in John’s direction.

John avoided that, ducking his face away. He started getting the mules from the traces. The young lady fussed over them, talking and talking about how brave and strong they were. He let her lead them to the small shelter, glad to see good fodder.

“No horses?” The shelter was far too clean.

“Too expensive, Da says.” She rolled her eyes as she started brushing. “Not worth the work you get out of them. I can’t even talk him into a draft horse to help with the plowing!”

“Ridiculous.” John’s Shin’a’in nature balked at the idea of a life without horses. “Not even a pony? Donkey?”

“Waste of fodder.” She sighed as if it were killing her. “I nearly died of embarrassment when a Herald stopped here last year!”

“Companions do have high standards.” John picked their hooves since she had the brushing well in hand. “But they want a good brushing more than anything. They aren’t picky about the type of shelter, but they enjoy a blanket if it gets nippy.” He remembered Rolan’s thoughts well enough to recite. “They prefer a hot mash over plain oats.” He saw she was listening avidly. “More than anything, talk to them. They’ll let you know if they’re unhappy.”

“Oh, Tale’sedrin, what I’d do to be Chosen.” She sighed like it was a dream, leaning against one of the mules. “Can you imagine?”

“No, I can’t,” John muttered, choosing his lie carefully. The girl was, maybe, twelve. If a Companion didn’t come soon, it wasn’t going to happen. “I’ll get some oats from the wagon.”

It was Fall, but still warm enough they wouldn’t need their blankets. John managed a piece of candy for each of them, weathered the glare from a tiny boy, and filled a bucket with oats. Harold wasn’t turning his wagon into his store, so he must have other plans.

The womenfolk were starting a fire not too far from the wagon, setting up a large cauldron for either stew or laundry. John hoped for a thick stew, but he could use his shirts cleaned. His young friend ran up, grabbed the bucket from him, and went to pour out the feed.

Leaning against a convenient post, he watched her, not really thinking, just wishing that Jesse were here. When she was done, she brought the bucket back to him. “Tale’sedrin, I’m sorry for your loss.” And she pushed the bucket at him before running away.

John narrowed his eyes, not sure he liked the fact that she could sense his pain.

:Interesting.:

“Go away, Rolan,” John whispered, but he hoped she got her Companion. He trotted over to the wagon, put his sword away, and got his bow. The string was still in good condition, and his arrows were sharp. He put on his oldest clothes before stepping out and almost bumping into Harold.

“You’ll be careful?”

“No clucking, Harold.” John made sure his boot laces were tight. “Your cousins don’t own a single horse.”

“Too expensive.” Harold nodded. He tucked away his glasses. “They’re my father’s people, and I always give the mules a good rest here. You don’t mind?”

“You’re the boss, Master Harold.” John popped his quiver over his head and tied it down to his belt. “What if I find wild boar?”

“Run far away is my advice, vicious beasts.” Harold stepped closer and lowered his voice. “I appreciate this. They won’t hunt or kill beasts for food. They say it’s against the One’s law.”

“Their God likes them hungry.” Now, John knew why they were all lean. “I won’t come back empty-handed.”

“Thank you.” Harold gave him a tiny pat on the arm like he did the mules. John jogged away so Harold couldn’t see how red in the face he was. Everyone waved as he left the small village, and while he had no idea where the deer were, he did know where the nearest river was, and he headed that direction.

It was good to stretch his legs and think about something other than his grief. He stopped at the water’s edge and began looking for tracks. He found a doe first, and he watched her go, staying silent, and sure enough, last season’s buck wasn’t far behind her. John held perfectly still, waiting, not even breathing.

The shot was an easy one, and he thanked his Goddess before removing his arrow. The shaft was splintered, but he’d save the head. With a grunt, he tossed the buck over his shoulder and began the run back to the village.

They were ready for the deer when he returned, and he helped them hang it up before going back to the river. He washed before beginning his next hunt. This area was rich in wildlife, and it wasn’t more than two candlemarks later when John spotted a good-sized buck.

Locking his muscles, he waited, arrow drawn to his ear. When the buck turned, John took the shot, felling him instantly. “Thank you, Goddess,” John muttered. He worked quickly and began the trek back to the village.

This buck was heavier than the last, and he knew his legs would be sore in the morning. The villagers gawked and then rushed to help, and he was grateful for the bucket of water to wash off near the wagon.

Some fresh clothes and he emerged with his blood-soaked tunic and trews in hand. One of Harold’s cousins took the clothes from him before he could say a word. He shrugged, not caring if they were thrown on the fire and going to help with the deer.

Harold wasn’t in sight, but John wasn’t too worried. When they refused to let him help with the skinning, he went to the fire to keep an eye on the stew he could smell. Hand-hewn benches were set up around it, mixed with some bales of straw, and he sat with a small thump.

“Tale’sedrin! Well done!” Joran shouted, coming out of one of the huts. He hurried over, smiling, and John couldn’t see the resemblance to Harold at all. “We will eat well this winter!”

“I’ll go again tomorrow.” John didn’t think two deer would last four moons. “The deer are thick.”

“Our gratitude is yours.” Joran sat down and clapped him on the knee. “Tonight, we will celebrate Harold’s return and his new friendship with you.”

John nodded, not sure what to say, deciding horses was a safe topic. “Your girl there wants a horse.”

“She does, indeed.” Joran leaned forward, clasping his hands together. His voice was so low it didn’t travel further than John’s ears. “The One God spoke to me on the matter when she was born, saying that her horse will come from the South on the day she is ready, and she shall have none before that.

“I must follow my God.”

It almost felt like a punch to the chest. He wanted it for her, but, oh, how it hurt that he’d never had it. So close, it’d been so close, but he’d had the misfortune of being Chosen by Rolan. He sucked air over his teeth and sat back.

“My Goddess. She also takes a hand in her followers. It is wise to do as they say.” John believed that, but she’d never spoken to him, and he didn’t expect it in the future.

“And so, we have. No horses.” Joran shook his head. “They eat too much anyway.” And he laughed.

John excused himself and went to get his arrows from the wagon. It’d give him something to do, and he hoped Rolan had been listening. John pushed some anger at the bond, but he shook it off when he returned to the fire, glad to see Harold there.

“Well done, John.” Harold looked very satisfied. “I will pay you extra this moon.”

“No need for actual coin. I’ll start an account for that horse I want.” John would hold out until he’d seen the famous horses of Forst Reach. “Ashkevron horses cost more silvers than any other horse in the kingdom.”

Harold raised his eyebrows. “That they do. Maybe you’d rather have a nice mule?”

John sighed loudly. “Harold.”

And Joran laughed.

Much later, the moon had come and gone, the children had fallen asleep, and the stars shined down on the cool Fall night as John put his bedroll on top of the wagon. The fire was still going, and Harold was knee-deep in cousins, all talking about the business of survival in Valdemar.

Heartsore when the talk naturally turned to his King, he sat cross-legged and stared up into the dark sky, turned away from the fire. He liked Harold’s cousins, and he would spend these days helping them prepare for Winter.

He fell asleep before the sun came up.

The rain kept the deer in hiding the next day, but John did manage a brace of ducks and a fat, male goose right after sunrise. They were much easier to carry back to the tiny village. He was starting to wonder how many people slept in each hut.

He did spot the smoke hut back in the trees. It was a small one and had the look of Harold about it. The women of the village greeted him with spiced cider and hot cakes in exchange for the ducks, ushering him into one of the small huts out of the rain.

The hut was just a kitchen and a long table for eating. Men, women, and children came and went, some off to chores and slumping the entire way. Harold came in and took a seat across from John.

“I had far too much wine last night,” Harold whispered, scrubbing at his face. “Up early, John?”

“Fairly.” John shrugged, so glad to see another pile of hot cakes coming towards him. “This is an interesting village. There are more people than buildings.”

“There are homes hidden among the trees. My father was a cautious man, and he believed that not tempting the brigands was the road best taken.” Harold took his food and drink with thanks. He shut his eyes for a moment after his first bite of food. “If you’d prefer an actual bed to sleeping in the rain tonight, I can provide you with one.”

“I’m fine.” John would find a dry spot, probably with the mules. “I was up before the rain today.”

“I noticed.” Harold groaned, adding honey to his tea. “The women here demanded I get your clothes from the wagon to be washed.”

John hid a smile behind his fist, feeling guilty about it. “So, you did. I don’t blame you. You might’ve been struck with a spoon of some sort.”

“I’m glad you’re sympathetic to my problem.” Harold looked as if he might smile. He nudged the rest of his food at John. “I’ll show you the rest of the village, once we’ve eaten.”

Used to Harold’s eating habits, John finished all the food and another mug of drink. “Do you follow the One?” It was forward, but John was too curious to resist.

Harold gave him a steady look. “My father left here when he was a young man, traveling about healing animals. He had a Gift. That’s how he met my mother at Forst Reach.

“No one true way, and all that.” Harold slowly got to his feet. “Come along, no sense trying to stay dry today.”

John noticed the lack of an answer, but he didn’t mind. He followed Harold out into the weather, which was gloomy, but the rain had tapered off. It was a bit cold, so they grabbed their cloaks before going towards the lean-to.

The mules enjoyed their treats, and that began the tour. John would admit that he was impressed. These people were very private, hiding their real homes behind screens made of vines and interwoven leaves, far away from the road.

“My brother, Nathan, did much of the work. He was a fine engineer when it came to water, wind, any natural resources.” Harold pointed out all the comforts. “My parents lived at Forst Reach much of the year, but summers were spent here.”

John could hear the nostalgia in Harold’s voice. “You traveled here in your wagon?”

“Before I improved it, of course. Father encouraged my tinkering to a point, but he drew the line at his expensive wagon!” Harold led John down a ragged path to a cabin not far from the river. They hung their cloaks by the door, and the warmth of the fireplace felt good. “My father’s cabin, but I had them open it for you.”

John opened his mouth to protest and the wind chose that moment to throw rain against the roof loud enough to be heard. “I don’t have to share with ten children?”

Harold smiled, just a twitch of lips. “Not tonight, maybe tomorrow.”

“Good enough.” John thanked him with a nod of his head.

“I had your bag brought.” Harold waved his hand at the bed tucked in the far corner. “I must meet with the elders before nuncheon. Please try to stay dry.”

“I’ll go hunting later this afternoon when it clears off.” John watched him leave before beginning to poke in corners. He’d rather sleep with the mules, but Harold had made an effort. It’d be rude to refuse at this point.

There was a small table and chairs, and he thought it might be nice to check all his weapons before going out again. Finding a jug of ale made that decision even easier. His focus narrowed to edges and the level in the jug lowered.

When the door opened, he snapped a knife into his hand. Harold raised a jug of ale in each hand. “I did knock, please don’t kill me.”

John snorted, putting the knife away.

Harold looked over the table distastefully. “Must you do that here?”

“You’d prefer the main dining room?” John pushed a chair back for him. “Is there a good fletcher here? I could use some arrows.”

“I’m afraid not.” Harold sat down, adding the jugs to the mess. “I needed a break from all the talk. Like elsewhere, the lambing season was a disaster. There is a fierce debate going on amongst the elders whether to sell all the sheep or hope for a better season come Spring.”

John stalled by getting up to put another log on the fire. He thought about it carefully before answering. “Sell. The disease isn’t dying off like predicted.”

Harold tilted his head. “I agree. Convincing them won’t be easy.” He shook his head. “It’s one of the few animals they can have that make a good profit.”

It was a fair point that John had heard argued in council, but he had an answer for it. “Switch to goats. They’re hardy, will thrive on poor fodder, and produce milk. There’s no pressure to slaughter them, and there are breeds with very fine hair for shearing.” He had eaten goat meat before and didn’t much like it. “Children can be trusted to watch them, and they can also be trained to pull small wagons to help with harvest.”

“All good arguments.” Harold looked satisfied. “Where can we procure goats?”

Now John sighed. “Send people to all the Fall markets. They’ll find some.” He wasn’t doing it. “And horses would come in handy. Mare’s milk is delicious.”

“No one will believe me on that.” Harold got to his feet. “Thank you, I’ll be back for dinner.”

John saluted him with a jug. When Harold left, two women brought him a basket of food and ran away when he thanked them. He shrugged and ate the basket empty. That done, he got his bow and cloak, tucked the last jug under his arm, and went for a hunt.

The ground was wet, the sky overcast, but it wasn’t cold. He circled until he found one of their fields. The corn had been harvested, but deer came for the pickings. Settling down in a hidden spot, he pulled his cloak tight to wait.

The level on the jug went down, and the light began to fade. He fought his mind again and again, striving for calm. Grief had other ideas, shaking him, making him want to scream at the darkening sky. The ale didn’t help, but it kept his mouth shut.

A fine mist settled over him, chilling him to the bone, and he drank. When the ale was gone, he’d still seen nothing worth his bow, and he leaned back onto a tree, shutting his eyes. This burden seemed too great to bear, but he must.

“John! John!”

The sound of Harold’s voice woke him, and he had no idea where he was. His gummy eyes refused to focus, and he made sure his bow was in his hand. His feet slid on the wet leaves, and he fell backwards into the tree, knocking himself down.

“John!”

Answering him wasn’t possible, and John wondered angrily why the hell Harold was out here looking. Couldn’t a man grieve in private? Then it hit him that his crippled friend was out in the woods, probably alone in the dark, and if he fell, he might re-break his leg.

“Harold!” John croaked, struggling to get to his feet again. The drink made him slow and stupid, and the cold rain had frozen him. “You damn fool,” he muttered.

“Oh, thank Havens.” Harold grabbed hold of him, putting his shoulder underneath John’s arm, giving him strength to stand.

Harold must’ve known that John had little concern for living, but he’d come searching. John sagged against him, needing to apologize, but instead, he nearly fell, taking them both down to their knees.

“Oh, John,” Harold whispered, and it was his strength that got them both back to the small cabin by the river. John collapsed to the floor in front of the fire, and Harold, gasping for breath, folded down into a chair. “I thought I’d lost you.”

For a quarter candlemark, they did nothing but breathe, and then Harold stripped off his cloak, hanging it by the door. John watched as Harold’s leg trembled, and he pushed until he was sitting. His own cloak was soaked through, and Harold took care of it next.

“Sit, before you fall,” John growled. His stomach roiled, and he swallowed it down. The heat of the fire actually felt hot, and he began to shiver. He forced his fingers to uncurl from his bow and used both hands to get to his feet.

Once there, the whole room spun, and Harold, somehow, kept him from falling down again. John tried not to lean on him, but it was impossible, and they clung together, soaking wet, trembling. Harold reached up and wiped the wet from John’s face with his hand. “You can do it.”

The touch felt like a brand against his skin, and John ducked away from it, finding enough strength to stand on his own.

“Drank too much ale to do much of anything,” John growled, but he managed to sit down in a chair. Harold picked up John’s bow and hung it by the cloaks. The string was wet and might have to be replaced. John hung his head, saw the food, and realized he was starving. He put a bite of cheese in his mouth. “Couldn’t find a deer,” he mumbled.

Harold slowly sat down across from him, stretching out his bad leg. “Not in this weather. Eat, then get some sleep.”

“I was sleeping.” John ate and let the guilt settle. He was an idiot. “It’s late. Take the bed. I’ll sleep by the fire.”

“No, John.” Harold got to his feet. “Eat, rest, no more hunting. Joran says the smoke house is full. They don’t eat much meat, anyway. Please, rest.” He grabbed his cloak and limped away before John could answer, or shout after him, or thank him.

The door shut, and John put his face in his hands. Harold was a good man, and John didn’t deserve that in his life, but it was clear, Harold wasn’t turning John loose without a fight.

“Sheka,” John whispered. He finished the food and went to strip off his wet clothes to hang over the chairs and dry. He crawled under the blankets, gradually his shakes faded away, and he slept.

The smell of food woke John up, and he retched before getting his back up off the bed. Harold calmly handed him some spiced cider. “For your head.”

John drank it, gave up on his pride, and collapsed back, pulling the blanket over his face.

“Were you going to sleep out in the rain all night?” Harold’s question had a bite to it.

“Shin’a’in are tough, Harold.” John’s voice was a ragged whisper. “You shouldn’t worry.”

“Well, I do.” Harold’s soft admission was instantly followed by a harder tone. “Do you realize how difficult it would be for me to find another hired man this late in the year? And we still have quite some distance to go!”

“Fine. I won’t sit in the rain any longer.” John refused to open his eyes, and he must’ve fallen asleep. The door woke him up again, and this time he sat up, shoved the blanket around his hips, and knuckled his eyes.

Giggles made him look, and he tried to hide his cringe. Several women villagers were fussing with clothes, cleaning, and putting out food for him. One woman clearly licked her lips, and he tugged the blanket a bit higher. He didn’t need that. Finally, each of them taking one more look, they scurried out the door.

Harold stepped inside and left with color in his cheekbones. John couldn’t help it. He laughed, a raw sound, and he knew that Jesse would be teasing him. The women had left a bucket near the fireplace for him to wash up, and he did that first, feeling better after he dressed, necklace tucked away safely. All his clothes were clean, mended, and there were more of them.

Complaining about their care would be churlish of him, and he’d try to find a way to thank them. Maybe a few more ducks would be appreciated. He repacked his bag, tucked weapons here and there, and decided to eat before he checked his bow.

Harold peeked in the door and then joined him at the table. “The mules are fine. The children have been enjoying them.”

John nodded and kept eating. He ignored the ale and drank cider. Harold picked at a few things in his usual way. “We’ll leave at dawn.”

“Good.” John was ready. Sitting around doing nothing made it too easy for him to think about all he’d lost. “Did you pay them for the extra clothes?”

“Joran wouldn’t hear of it.” Harold shrugged. “One of the men died in an accident. They’re his clothes.”

It was good that they were being used then, and John wouldn’t worry that someone was going without. He needed to say something about last night, but finding the words was hard. When he did find some, he felt as if his tongue might catch fire. “It seems as if we are to be friends.”

Harold’s mouth turned down, but he didn’t leave the table. “It does. I apologize if I’m too forward. My uncle says I’m alone far too much and have no manners.”

John thought it was more likely his fault. “Well, I’ve been told I’m dramatic and it doesn’t suit me, so you’ve been warned.”

Harold glanced up. They exchanged a tired shrug. “I usually spend this day cleaning my wagon as the children make a mess of it. Perhaps you could help, John shena Tale’sedrin?”

“If we throw candy at them, maybe they’ll leave,” John answered, gathering his things as he’d rather sleep on the wagon tonight.

Chuckling, Harold went to put out the fire. “You can try.”

Chapter Text

Everyone came out to wave goodbye after a big breakfast, and John ignored two older ladies who winked at him. Harold wanted to drive, of course, and John didn’t argue about it.

:Pick up the pace, unless you want to be there when she’s Chosen.:

“Sheka,” John whispered, heeding Rolan’s warning because it might break him in half to see it. He eased the reins away from Harold, who stared at him flabbergasted, and gave them a half-hearted snap. “Hey-up, mules!”

For the first time, the mules responded to him, stepping out with speed. The rest had done them good.

“I guess we’re in a hurry,” Harold drawled.

John didn’t answer, putting his eyes on the mules and keeping them moving. After a candlemark, Harold gave up, going inside the wagon. John let his shoulders relax a bit, glad the wind was blowing noise the other direction.

It wasn’t too long before Harold returned, and John handed him the reins and dropped off the side to run at the back, needing to pound away the hurt.

“Oh, now you want me to drive!” Harold yelled after him.

It wasn’t until the next village that John felt like he was under control again, and he was glad for the simple tasks of setting up the wagon the way Harold liked it and taking care of the mules. For them, it’d been a short day.

“We’ll leave before the dawn,” Harold said, waving him close. “We have a bit of distance to the next stop.”

John shrugged. It wasn’t his business, but it was the mules that made this slow going, and it was time to start convincing Harold they needed horses.

That thought brought John up short, because until right this moment, he hadn’t even thought about next year, after winter, not seriously. He settled his sword across his shoulder, noticing a few foul looks, and considered it.

All those Ashkevron horses, and he supposed he could take a look, maybe he’d find one that suited him. Harold would need him next year, and Harold was set in his ways, liking things in a particular fashion.

After the last two days of inactivity, John knew he wasn’t ready for settling down. Traveling with Harold gave him a purpose, and if it was cowardly to avoid Haven, then so be it. John hoped Forst Reach was far enough away.

He’d seen Lord Ashkevron at Court, of course, but John had always stayed in the shadows. Jesse had been the star of Court, and it had been John’s duty and privilege to keep him safe, not make himself noticed.

The tavern girl brought out ale, interrupting his thoughts, and John made sure Harold had a cup at his elbow before taking his own to the front of the wagon. The crowd was made of women and children. The few men he’d seen were inside the inn, not that women couldn’t be dangerous, but John always trusted them further than he should.

The hours trailed away, and it was with some relief, John jumped to deal with a couple of men who came flying out the inn door, fists flying. They were drunkards, and he dumped one in the village water trough while the other stretched out in a handy pile of used straw from a well-placed punch.

Kids ran and threw dirt clods at them, and John broke them apart by tossing them candy. Harold gave him a steady look but said nothing.

Finally, Harold finished with his last customer, promised to deliver plans on repairing the millstone without removing it, and helped John restore the wagon for traveling tomorrow. “Let’s find dinner.”

John locked the door and followed him inside, not even considering helping him up the few stairs. The fireplace blew away the chill of Autumn, and John would’ve eaten at a table in the back, but Harold gave him a look.

“What?”

“You might sit with me,” Harold said with a sniff.

“You usually eat with a herd of old men that I’d rather not listen to natter on about the good, old days.” John stretched his back and took a long look at the crowd. It wasn’t loud, but it was early yet. He caught a flash of scarlet. “Is that a Bard?”

Harold whipped around and followed John’s gaze. “Oh, yes! Bard Rose! So good to see you!”

And John faded to the back of the inn, knowing Bard Rose very well and not wishing to suffer the conversation, or tongue-lashing, that she would deliver without ever seeming to take a breath.

Harold didn’t chase after him, and John ate in the kitchen, quickly, before going to make his bed on top of the wagon. A Bard meant safety, and John could keep an eye open from outside the inn.

The sound of Harold’s voice brought him wide awake, and he was moving down from the wagon before he thought about it, catching a drunken Harold as he pitched off the steps of the inn.

“Good morning, Harold.”

Harold grinned up at him, reeking of wine. “There was music! And music!”

John put Harold on his own feet, carefully, and Harold swayed, peering up at him. “Had a good time, huh?”

“Oh, it was lovely, John.” Harold leaned against him full body. “You are very sturdy.”

“Thank you.” John decided Harold wouldn’t be walking, so he scooped him up and took him to the wagon, navigating the door without too much trouble. Harold giggled the entire way and collapsed readily enough on his bed. John pulled Harold’s boots off, put a bucket by the bed, and covered him with a blanket. “Sleep.”

“Oh, John, it was lovely.”

Leaving a lantern on low, John went back outside, coming to a quick stop. “Bard.”

“Monarch’s Own.” Rose nearly flattened him with her glare. “I assume Rolan isn’t in the barn?”

“I never assume anything.” John swung up on top of the wagon. Soon, he’d get the mules and they’d leave. Harold could sleep the day away.

Rose thumped her fists onto her hips. “Master Harold is a good friend of mine!”

“Then lower your voice and let him rest.” John began rolling up his pallet, getting down easily to stuff everything inside the door. He could hear Harold humming. Gently, he shut the door and faced her again. “Tell the Queen I’m going north to Forst Reach, if you must meddle in my business.”

“It’s the business of the Circle.” Rose was clearly upset with him.

“You overestimate my importance.” He walked away from her, going to the barn to get the mules, and he hoped that was the end of it. The mules ate their morning oats while he brushed them and picked their hooves. When he glanced up, and she was behind him, he sighed. “Can I get your horse for you?”

“No, thank you.” She sighed, and he grabbed the silence before she could start railing at him again.

“That small village just south of here? One of their children was Chosen yesterday. They might appreciate a visit from someone who can instruct them on what to expect.” He motioned towards one of the horses with his head. “I don’t mind saddling him for you.”

Her eyes narrowed and surprising him, Rose stepped to him and put her hand over his heart. He barely controlled his desire to slap her hand away. After a slow count to three, she dropped her hand and met his eyes.

“You can’t outrun this grief.” Rose turned away, speaking over her shoulder. “Please saddle my horse. The small bay mare, if you hadn’t noticed. I’ll head south.”

“I know they’d appreciate it. Tell them Cousin Harold sent you.” John went to brush her horse while his grief thundered through him. He could almost taste her sympathy, and it made him want to scream. The bay gave him big eyes and then settled. John took care of the mare first and tied her to the wagon when he finished.

The sun was starting to light the horizon, and the mules were ready. He harnessed them, double-checked the wagon and waited until she came out, dressed for the road, gittern over her shoulder. She mounted, and he followed her back through the village to the road.

She went south, and he went north. He didn’t rush the mules, but they were fresh. He was very glad Harold was sleeping off the wine, because he needed time to get himself under control. Clasping his necklace under his tunic, he scrubbed his face and let it have him, remembering Jesse’s smile, kind words, and the sweet nights they’d shared before the engagement.

Harold didn’t appear until after John had stopped for the night. The mules had found a nice spot with a good lean-to, and John hadn’t seen any reason to argue about it. He had a thick stew cooking and was sitting on his bedroll, just waiting for another day of traveling.

The door to the wagon opened, and Harold cursed several times as he emptied his bucket. There was the sound of retching, and John hid his grin. With a stumble and a curse, Harold joined him, slumping down into his chair. No glasses completed his rumpled look, and John wanted to stare at him.

“Never again.”

“That’s what we always say.” John handed him some cider. “The Bard headed south this morning.”

“She’s just… tremendous.” Harold actually blushed, barely visible in the light of the fire.

John raised his eyebrows. “Well, we can chase after her.”

A startled look, and Harold chuckled. “Her music, John.” He drank his cider, not seeming to have the energy for much else. “She has all three Gifts. A performance worthy of the Queen.”

He sighed.

“She said you were friends.” John handed him a piece of bread with jam on it. “Shook her finger at me, as well.”

“Rose had a fierce reputation at the Collegium even as a student.” Harold nibbled on the bread as if his stomach was sore. “She socked Nathan right in the jaw.” And he chuckled. “Nathan thought he was a ladies’ man.”

It was easy to picture the scene in his head. He raised an eyebrow in Harold’s direction. “Maybe she preferred the younger brother.”

“Oh, stop.” Harold looked about the camp. “Thank you for getting us back on the road. It’s really beyond what I pay you for.”

John thought they’d moved further than that as well, but Heralds didn’t sit around and wait to act. “Watching you roll around in the dirt, drunk, didn’t seem like a good use of my time.”

Harold gave him a sharp look. “I wasn’t that drunk!”

For a bare moment, John grinned at him before turning away to cough. Harold’s laugh brought John’s eyes back to him. “Was there much traffic on the road today?”

“Some. Turnips and carrots mostly.” Grateful for the change of subject, John eased forward and stirred the stew. “Squirrel tonight. I thought we could use a change.”

“I am tired of rabbit.” Harold sighed again. “Is it just me or has the food at inns been particularly awful lately?”

“Pretty bad.” John came to the reluctant decision that since he might be doing this for years to come, he should be honest. “I can cook, but you only seem to have the one pot, and--.”

“John shena Tale’sedrin!” Harold yowled at him. “You can cook? And what held you back was the lack of proper pots and pans?”

John stared at him. “Yes.” He waved at the fire. “I like stew, so it didn’t seem important.”

Harold slumped back in his chair and put his hands over his eyes. “I’m too headsore for this revelation.”

That was true. John went to find a rag in the wagon. He wet it in the cold stream and took it back to the fire and Harold’s aching head. Harold placed it over his eyes. “Thank you.”

Going to check the mules gave John a place to smile. It felt strange on his face, but he thought Jesse would forgive him this one.

The villages started running together in John’s mind. They were all the same, and while he’d known Valdemar had a large farming population, he hadn’t quite understood what that meant. He did approve of the variety and quality of the draft horses, but Harold was dead set against buying.

“I’m just saying.”

“Have you noticed that I’m crippled? One shoulder shove and I’ll never get up.” Harold was dramatic about the topic. “And the cost of the extra sweet feed? Ridiculous.”

It was John’s turn to roll his eyes. He couldn’t believe that Harold grew up at Forst Reach, where they lived and breathed horses. “Now, you sound like your cousin, Joran.”

“He’s right about that,” Harold muttered. He got up from his chair and vanished inside the wagon.

Glad they were camping instead of staying at an inn, John went to check the food. Harold had purchased every pot and pan he could get his hands on, since finding out John could cook. The wagon rattled with them, but John still enjoyed a nice stew. Of course, now he made corn bread in an iron skillet to go with it. He also had some apples cooking in a pot on the coals for dessert.

His adopted mother had taught him how to cook. She’d insisted it would make him a better husband. He wasn’t telling Harold that, and years of pampering at the Collegium had dimmed his memories of the recipes, but some things were easy.

“I remembered I traded for some lovely honey.” Harold plunked a jar down in John’s hand.

John’s stomach rumbled in anticipation. “Even better than a chicken.”

“Did you feed that chicken?” Harold gave him a stern look.

“It followed us out of town all on its own.” John would’ve kept a hen, but roosters were only good for the pot. “I think it was bored of living there.”

“Or just bored of living.” Harold settled into his chair. “You kept the tail feathers?”

“I even put them away, just where you like them.” John added another log to the fire, and the sun faded away, letting the night creep over them. It had been a beautiful Fall day, and the night was going to be chilly but not cold. He hoped the weather held. “Now, let’s talk horses.”

“Let’s talk about the current political situation with Karse instead.” Harold only picked that because he knew John would groan. John put his fingers in his ears. Harold smirked. “The mules have miles more in them.”

Giving up the argument for the night, John turned his attention to dinner. If he kept eating like this, he was going to get fat.

“I’m just saying that if you’re going to insist on sleeping on the roof, I should put in a guard rail of some sort.” Harold was nagging on it again.

John got out a knife and started idly tossing it in the air and catching it. “We should also take off this front board so you could stretch your leg out properly.” He didn’t look at him. “And some type of cover to keep the sun and rain off your head.”

Harold stopped the mules in the middle of the road. “People will point and laugh.”

Swinging down, John went to check the right leg of the offside mule. “You don’t care about that. You enjoy suffering. You’re paying for something in your past. Just like how I run behind the wagon when I can’t stand the feel of my skin any longer.”

“That’s the most words I’ve ever heard you say.” Harold was on his feet, stretching. “Is Lefty lame?”

John dropped the hoof and sighed. “He’s not, yet, but he has some sort of muscle ache. Age, I suspect. Is the other mule named Righty?”

“Of course.” Harold sat back with a thump. “Fine. We’ll update the wagon, but I’m not getting horses.”

“Yes, you are.” John gave Lefty a pat and went to get some liniment to rub on that leg. They were almost at the next village, so he’d get a good rest soon. “I’ll trot behind.”

Harold rolled his eyes, which happened at least once a day. Sooner or later, John was going to smile at him. It was wearing him down. The mules got moving, and John paced them, glad for the exercise. Tonight, would be another lesson in patience as he did nothing but stand around and look fierce, which Harold said he was quite good at doing.

Every village council wanted the details from Harold about the death of the King and the new Queen, and the stabbing pain had begun to dull to a roaring ache. John had thrown his hand axe the length of the inn at the last stop when someone had suggested Morgan had orchestrated the death of her father. Harold had asked him not to take the axe inside any longer.

John hadn’t promised. He knew people were stupid, but some things demanded a response. It wasn’t like he’d hit anyone with it.

The wind swirled some dried, oak leaves in front of him, and the harvest was a good one, or so everyone said. John was relieved for the Queen’s sake. The air was beginning to have a chill to it, and the mules weren’t getting any faster.

It wasn’t a problem for John, but Harold’s leg would hate the cold. John sincerely hoped they would be at Forst Reach before the first snow. They rounded a gentle corner, and John heard shouting from ahead.

“Harold! Stop here! Let me check it out!” John didn’t wait for an answer, running to see a small village, thatched roofs, and a gang of men trying to terrorize and rob the villagers. They were not going to be any help fighting them off.

John spotted a brigand with a torch and let fly with an arrow, firing two more before the first one killed the man trying to burn them out. The torch fell to the ground, sputtering, and John was on them. He would’ve pulled his blows, but they were trying to kill him.

“John!”

He spun, grabbed the axe Harold tossed to him and threw it into the back of a man trying to drag a woman away. Harold followed quickly with the sword, and John moved through them as if they were standing still. He was careful not to hurt their horses.

The last man tried to run John down, but he ducked under and came up hard, slashing him from the saddle. The horse bolted away from the falling body, and John whirled, but it was only Harold. Harold raised his hands, eyes wide.

“John?”

John put Harold behind him. “I thought I told you to stop.”

“I’m not good at staying out of trouble.”

“Now you tell me.” John looked at the wreckage and sighed. He’d be digging a burial ditch half the night. “I’ll check them. You stay here. I mean it.”

Harold nodded, holding onto the mules. John retrieved his arrows, his axe, and cleaned his sword off on a dead man’s shirt. The villagers were in varying amounts of shock, but they were starting to come around, confused and yelling a bit.

John searched the bodies, found some coin, and made a pile of their swords. The blacksmith could make use of them. The horses had mostly ran off, but he gathered up two before they could pound away. They were nags, but maybe someone could use them. He tied them to the rail of the inn, seeing that Harold was organizing the villagers.

Together, they cleaned up and made sure no one was hurt. Only then did John allow himself a deep breath and a check for blood. Not a scratch, but it’d been close. He was lucky they’d been more intent on robbing than fighting.

Going to the mules, John drove the wagon to the inn and followed Harold’s hand signals for where to put it. Unbuckling the mules, he took them to the stable and put them away himself, since the stable boys had fled.

With that job done, he went back to find Harold supervising some men to put the dead bodies on a cart to be taken for burial. “You okay, Master Harold?”

“Yes.” Harold looked him up and down. “No injuries?”

“No, sir, Master Harold.” John liked to tease him. “No Healer in this village?”

“Too small.” Harold shook his head. “No one is seriously injured. You saved them.”

“Well, you tossed me the axe.” John wasn’t comfortable with praise. “I’ll help bury them. You head to the inn and make sure there’s food for when I get back!”

Harold nodded. “John shena Tale’sedrin! Thank you!”

The villagers cheered, and John ducked his head. Later, he might kill Harold. “Sheka, te’sorthene.”

Chapter Text

“You know I don’t like horses.” Harold took his wire glasses off and put them in his vest pocket, proof of how serious he was. “They’re too nervous.”

“Lefty isn’t going to make it to Forst Reach. At this rate, we aren’t either!” John came up from giving the mule another dose of liniment. “I’m Shin’a’in! I’ll find you a good pair!”

“You better,” Harold snapped, not happy. “We’ll cut my route short, head straight for Forst Reach. We’ll make it before the snow flies.”

“I hope so.” John didn’t want to dig out a road or freeze to death waiting for the Guard to do it. “I think you like mules because you’re as stubborn as one!”

Harold sighed, didn’t answer, and got the mules moving again. John paced them, watching that leg until he was sure Lefty was going along. Only then did he drop back and swing aboard to sit next to Harold.

“How far to the next stop?”

“Not until nightfall, a good-sized village, and I always stop there because the blacksmith there and I are old friends.” Harold let the mules set their own pace.

“If I have to, I’ll run ahead and borrow a horse to get us there.” John found the canteen and took a healthy drink of water. “Next Spring let’s get two good horses and a few pack animals. We’ll make much better time.”

Harold glanced at him, a little wide-eyed. “And leave my wagon?”

John nearly smiled at Harold’s bewilderment at the mere idea. He put some water in his hand and rubbed it on his face. The weather was chilly now, mornings with frost and cold rain that made driving miserable. The wind had an edge to it that promised snow. The roads were full of people taking their harvest here and there, even as far North as they were, but everyone was hurrying now.

:It seems you’ve taken to the life of a circuit Herald.:

Telling Rolan to go away never worked. He dropped a comment into John’s mind every now and again. John didn’t bother with shields. Rolan was on the inside, and he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave.

By the time they reached the village, it was easing into dark, and John could see the mule would be dead lame come the morning. Harold’s face was pinched, worried, but he drove the mules away from the inn, down to a smithy.

“Who goes there?” A big door slid open, and light poured out, blinding them both.

“It’s Harold! And I have a new friend, John shena Tale’sedrin!”

“Harold? Traveling with a savage?” The lantern showed John a stout, bald man, older but still fit. “Where have you been?”

“I’m late, I know. John, this is Arthur Claypool. We were yearmates in the Blues.” Harold climbed down, and John made sure he didn’t fall. “My leg is as bad as it’s ever been, Arthur.”

“Then, let’s get you inside by the fire. Your friend and I can look after the mules! No sleeping in the wagon for you tonight.”

John agreed, cautiously liking this man. He ignored Harold’s complaints and helped him inside to a seat by a roaring fireplace. Arthur cleared the way, fussing over this and that and getting Harold a warm drink.

“Keep it elevated. Do you ever wear the brace I made for you?” Arthur pulled a blanket over Harold.

“No, he doesn’t,” John said. “One of the mules is lame.”

“Probably jealous of all the attention Harold gets!” Arthur brought some meat rolls and cheese from the back, putting them within Harold’s reach. “Do not move, not even to complain at me.”

It was hard not to smile at seeing someone get the best of Harold, for a change. John and Arthur went out together and worked quickly to get the wagon put away and the mules in stalls. Arthur bandaged the mule’s leg but agreed only rest would heal it. Both mules seemed grateful for oats, hay, and a warm barn.

“You’ll have to tell me the story of how Harold became friends with a Shin’a’in!” Arthur shut the barn up tight.

“I was standing in the road. He offered me a job. I figured walking was only slightly faster than his mules.” John stopped at the wagon to get his bag, just in case. Arthur laughed at the story and went ahead to make sure Harold was behaving.

John pushed opened the big door, locked it up tight, and considered whether sleeping in the wagon would be best. Arthur and Harold were deep in conversation, heads bent, focused on each other.

“Get John some food and hot cider, Arthur. He’s shy as a deer,” Harold said, meeting John’s eyes.

“If deer have fangs, yes.” Arthur found another chair for him, and John decided not to argue about it. He was cold and tired. The food was good, the cider excellent, and the fire warmed him to his bones. He was glad to be left out of the conversation. When Arthur refilled the cider, he said, “It’s a good thing Harold rescued you. He needs all the help he can get.”

Harold groaned. “I’m fine. I’ve done this route for years, sometimes with no help at all.”

“We’re older, now, Harold.” Arthur grinned. “Eat your fill, John. You’re safe here.”

“Did you hear about the brigands at Tom’s Crossing?” Harold asked. John nearly groaned, not wanting to listen to that story.

“I did. Nothing runs as fast as gossip.” Arthur took his own seat, near to Harold and pulled Harold’s bad leg into his leg. He started rubbing the twisted leg vigorously. “The gossip is that an avenging spirit struck them down and then ran away into the forest!”

“Not one word of that is correct,” Harold complained, but he didn’t yank his leg away. “Arthur, that won’t help. The bone healed twisted.”

“The muscles are swollen from you over-doing it. Now, hush. I should have John get the liniment.” Arthur didn’t stop rubbing the twisted leg.

John watched with hooded eyes. He’d never imagined that Harold would allow any man to lay hands on him. They talked about different subjects, moving from topic to topic, and Arthur had no patience for idle gossip. John let himself doze, but he didn’t sleep.

“Your watchdog is down to one eye,” Arthur said in a soft voice. “Harold, you need to take care of him.”

“I do try.” Harold’s voice was a bare whisper. “He likes to run alongside the wagon.”

And they both chuckled. John sighed. “I’ll head out to bed down in the barn, if you two gran’thers don’t mind.”

Then they laughed. “No, John. I have an extra bedroom.” Arthur heaved to his feet with a grunt. “Let’s get you settled.”

The smithy turned into a cozy cottage in back, and John washed up before getting ready for bed. He couldn’t explain it, but he felt safe here. Maybe there was a friendly spirit at the forge. The room was clean and the bed comfortable, and John was reminded of his quarters back in Haven.

Arthur bade him goodnight, and John changed into his sleep clothes before sliding under the blankets. Harold would sleep with Arthur; John was sure of that. His knife was close to hand, and he fell asleep easily.

The smell of bacon brought John awake, and he was so comfortable that he indulged in a long stretch. His first thoughts were always of Jesse, and he wished they’d gone on more adventures and spent less times in meetings. Of course, Jesse had liked meetings, writings, and all the laws that came with running a kingdom.

John, perhaps, preferred this life, now that he couldn’t serve his King. Sitting up, he scrubbed at his hair and then checked the edge on his knife. He might spend some time with all his weapons today, depending on Harold’s needs.

There was a fresh pitcher of water and a basin near the door, and he washed up before changing into fresh clothes. He went through his bag, seeing that he could use a trip to a laundry woman, but what he really needed were some more arrows. Perhaps Arthur would have an idea about that.

Satisfied, John stepped out of the small room into the kitchen. Arthur tossed him a grin. “I’ve looked after the mule. He’s as lame as Harold. Tuck into the food!”

John had known it, but he wanted to go see for himself. “Give me a moment.” He went to the outdoor plumbing first, made sure the wagon was where he’d left it, and then went to cosset Lefty.

Lefty’s days as a traveler were behind him. John hoped Harold wouldn’t send him to the butcher, but he was sentimental that way. Righty demanded some attention because he was always jealous, and John washed up again before going to breakfast.

“Thank you, Arthur.” John sat at the table and started loading his trencher. “I think Lefty will have to find a new job.”

“I know a family that will treat him well. Plenty of kids to give him carrots.” Arthur sat with him, having a cup of tea. “Poor Harold. He isn’t fond of horses.”

“Very true, but Righty can’t pull that heavy wagon by himself, and unless Harold intends to put me in the traces, we’ll need a draft horse, or two.” John poured himself some juice and started filling his complaining stomach. He hadn’t had hot cakes in forever.

“Did I hear John offer to pull the wagon so I won’t have to deal with horses, who will most likely knock me down and stand on me?” Harold had a gleam in his eye as he took a spot at the table.

“That you did.” Arthur grinned. “He sounds eager for the work.”

Harold laughed, not something John had seen very often. John hid his smile behind his hand and idly tossed his knife straight up in the air to land right in front of Harold’s plate with a thunk.

Arthur raised his eyebrows. “I think he’s made his point.”

“He does that.” Harold eyed the knife distastefully. “Arthur, hide your weapons.”

John retrieved his knife and wiped it on his leg. “I could use some arrows.”

“I can help you with that. Knowing Harold’s perchance for trouble, I’ll load you down.” Arthur nodded. “Harold, people can come here today, but let’s get you on the road tomorrow early. Snow will fly soon, and I want you safe at Forst Reach.”

“Agreed,” John said. “I’ll find us a horse, or horses, today. Arthur, do you have a one-horse hitch?”

“That I do.” Arthur nodded. “I’ll help Harold. You may have to travel to find a good horse.”

“I’m not riding Righty.” John shoved his mouth full of bacon, noticing their grins. He finished quickly and got moving. Harold pressed a bag of coin on him, and John decided to take it. By the time he went out the front door, there was a line of people waiting.

Harold would be busy today.

John trotted to the stable at the inn, but there was nothing but riding horses available. John rented one and went towards a farm that the stableman had said was likely. Riding a horse was nothing like a Companion, and John’s body took a good while to adjust. It was work to ride a horse, and he laughed at how poor a Shin’a’in he was. No wonder the Goddess never spoke to him!

The farm had five draft horses, but the farmer wasn’t willing to lose one, not even for coin. He did send John a different direction towards a sure thing. John got back on his horse, patted the bay on the shoulder, and pushed him into a canter.

It was after lunch now, and the sun had faded to clouds that threatened rain. John nudged his horse a bit faster and was glad to see the farm come up quickly. He dismounted, promised a young lady that he wasn’t there to rob them, and she ran to get her father.

He was reluctant, until John told him the horse, or horses, were for Master Harold. Suddenly, the mood changed. Harold had fixed items for them in the past, and John was taken to a large barn, where he nodded in satisfaction at their quality.

“Master Harold will need only one of mine for that wagon of his. Take Betsy. She’s the quietest of the lot. Five years old and can pull all day, she can.”

“She’s big.” John like the tall piebald instantly. She had a kind eye, and he ran his hands down to her legs, which were sturdy like iron bars. “She’ll do nicely. Is she part vanner?”

“Vanner stallion might’ve broken a fence to get in my field. Now, the price.”

John didn’t haggle. He pressed the coins on him, telling that Harold would be disappointed otherwise. The sun was two fingers off the horizon when John led the big girl down the lane, back towards town. She was big but much faster than the mules.

The sun was down by the time John returned the bay to the inn. He led the big mare to the smithy and the barn in back. He got busy making sure she was comfortable and clean before babying the mules. He wouldn’t miss them.

The line at the door was gone, but he could hear the murmur of voices as he slid in the door, glad to feel the warmth.

“John! Were you successful?” Harold popped to his feet and limped towards him, leaving a table of elderly men, no doubt discussing life’s problems and solutions.

“I think you’ll like the mare.” John ducked his head. “You okay?” he asked softly.

“I’m fine. Arthur was a big help. He switched the wagon to a single horse pull, saying that you wouldn’t come home empty-handed.” Harold eased in closer. “Go eat and rest, please.”

“Yes, sir, Master Harold.” John could see the men straining to hear. “We should leave very early. The weather is turning sour.”

Harold nodded in agreement and went back to the table. One of the men gave him a sharp look, but John ignored it and went to the kitchen. Arthur had food set out for him, and John ate until his stomach groaned. From there, he cleaned up and went to bed. It wasn’t late, but tomorrow would be a long day.

Long before the sun was up, John was. For some reason, he felt like they had to hurry. Arthur was in the kitchen when John emerged, and there was a good-sized quiver of arrows on the table.

“Eat, John.” Arthur poured him hot tea. “That mare looks like she’ll do fine.”

“I hope so.” John ate quickly and scooped up the arrows. “Did Harold pay you?”

“Of course.” Arthur smiled, and he was a terrible liar. “Let me feed him, and I’ll be out to help.”

Nodding, John took his things and trotted to the wagon. The wind was up, and it would rain very soon. He stowed his bag and arrows before pushing the wagon out. The horse was next, but he took the time to check Lefty’s leg, still lame, but better. Arthur would take care of him.

For a moment, he panicked at the ridiculous idea of putting the big mare in a harness suited for a mule, but then he saw Arthur had prepared one for him that would fit her with only a few adjustments. Arthur was a damn fine friend.

The mare was patient, easy-going, which was good, because the light was poor, and John was unfamiliar with all the straps and buckles. Arthur came out with a lantern and checked John’s work, which he appreciated.

“She’ll need more water stops than the mules, but she’ll go faster and farther. Heavy on the oats and forage and clean her hooves at each stop.” Arthur worked around her, adjusting this and that. “A mule won’t pull with a rock in his shoe. A horse will pull until they’re lame.

“Harold and I restocked the wagon. Head north and then curve west and south to Forst Reach. Two weeks traveling if a day with the mules, but you’ll make better time now.” Arthur hooked the lantern to the wagon. “May your Goddess bless you both, John.”

John thanked him and climbed up in the seat. It wasn’t more than quarter candlemark and Harold was rushing towards him, carrying a number of bags. Harold bullied John into a heavier coat and gloves, and John bullied Harold into staying inside the wagon. There was no reason for them both to be miserable cold.

Arthur hugged Harold goodbye, and they were on the road before the sky turned pink, but the sun had no intention of coming up. The sky lightened to gray and then darkened again as the rain began.

The mare tossed her head once and increased her pace a touch. John let her find her rhythm. She’d earn a blanket and oats today. Long before noon, John was heartily sick of the rain. The days began to bleed together, and he had been sure before, but now he knew in his bones why no one traveled the roads in winter in a wagon.

The rain lashed them. The snow slowed them down, froze them, and the nights on the road were miserable. Harold’s limp grew worse, and John stopped at every inn to get him in front a roaring fireplace, but come the morning, they were out in it again.

When they made the turn to head south, Harold patted John on the shoulder. “We’ll make it now.”

“Goddess help us if we don’t,” John growled. He pulled his hat down around his ears and got them moving again. The rain had turned to a light snow in the last hour, but at least it wasn’t sleet, not yet.

:Chosen! The river! You must help them!:

John sat bolt upright, pulling the mare to a hard stop.

:Run!: Rolan’s mindvoice thundered, forcing him to move.

Tying off the reins, he threw on the brake and jumped from the wagon. He knew the river was to the left, and he ran as if demons from Karse were after him, glad it wasn’t dark. He heard Harold yelling behind him, but he didn’t stop, and he tore through the forest.

He was half-expecting brigands again, but the screams of a Companion in distress reached his ears before he found the river. It was up, not raging, but high, and how the hell a Herald had gotten herself in such trouble, John wanted to know.

The Herald had fought the current, but she'd taken a blow that left her head bloody as she clung to an exposed branch. Her Companion couldn’t quite reach her, getting swept past her each time she swam close. John ran faster, gasping for breath.

:On her, quickly!:

John didn’t question it, throwing himself on the Companion and they plunged into the icy river together. He’d watched and knew the riverbed fell away, so he pulled his legs up to crouch on the saddle. The instant the Companion dropped, he jumped for her Herald.

The water shocked him, made him gasp but he made the grab, holding her head up and getting them both free of the branch. Her Companion waited for them downstream, and John snatched a stirrup as they swirled by.

:Well done, Chosen.:

John fought his way up on the bank, holding her tight, and he wouldn’t have made it without the Companion pulling him. Her eyes opened and shut several times, and her Companion didn’t stop until they were well away from the river. John heaved out a deep breath, aching from cold and scooped her up into his arms. He put her on her Companion, swinging up behind her to hold her tightly.

The trip back seemed longer than he remembered running, but soon enough, he saw Harold’s worried face in lantern light. “I’m here, Harold!”

“John! Thank Havens!”

Dismounting first, John caught her as she slid, and they bundled her into the wagon and onto the bed as quick as they could. “Harold, strip her. I need to check her Companion.”

“Then we must get you in dry clothes.”

John went back out and put his hand on the Companion’s neck. “She’s okay. Are you?”

The Companion nodded her head up and down and blew out heavily. John got her a nose feedbag and a blanket, taking time to dry her legs. He patted her on the neck. “Good job out there. You stayed calm. It’s hard when your Chosen is in danger. I’m proud of you.”

The mare arched her neck and nudged him, and he darted back in the wagon. Harold had the situation in hand, but John found space to help.

“How did you know, John?”

“I heard the Companion screaming,” John lied easily. He was no Healer, but he thought she’d live, once she woke up with a splitting headache. Harold cleaned the blood from her forehead and bandaged the deep cut. John stripped out of his wet clothes, dried off, and re-dressed in record time as his teeth chattered.

“There’s a village not too far.” Harold kept putting blankets on her. “There’s a Healer there.”

“Yell if you need help.” John went out and up into the wagon seat. He let off the brake and took hold of the lines. “Let’s go! Hey-up!”

The mare set out smartly, and John hoped Harold hadn’t been tossed to the floor. The Companion paced them, and she was moving well. Now, they just needed to get to the village. John let out a long breath. The snow swirled around him, and his hair froze against the nap of his neck as the dark settled around them.

It wasn’t long before Harold made John eat, but John kept the mare moving. The snow was still coming down, and it was full-on dark when they approached the village. Someone set up a cry at seeing the Companion, and John had never been happier to see an inn.

Stable boys swarmed the Companion, taking her to a warm stall and a hot mash, and John parked the wagon in a good spot before sending one of them running for the Healer. He unhooked his mare and took her to the barn, glad to be out of the snow.

“We got her! Where is the Herald?” The stableman stepped in front of John to take the mare.

“I sent a boy for the Healer. I pulled her from the river.”

“Cor!”

John helped him get the big draft mare settled, making sure her blanket was high around her ears. He spared a moment to lean against her. “Good job, Betsy. You’re a fine mare.”

She blew out and nuzzled at him before diving into her oats. John left her and trotted back to the wagon. There was a crowd, and the Healer had come quickly. He was in charge, but Harold was in the mix, giving directions. John just locked up the wagon and trailed them inside the inn. The Herald was taken upstairs, so John pulled a chair in front of the old fireplace and sat down heavily.

Someone pushed a warm drink into his hand, and he thanked them, not really seeing anything but the flames. The heat felt so good. When a familiar hand landed on his shoulder, he looked up.

“She’s okay?” John croaked, not able to face the idea that he'd failed again.

“She’ll be fine.” Harold pulled a chair next to him and sat to stretch out his leg. “You never cease to amaze me, John.”

John pulled off his hat and shook out his still wet hair. This Herald would be alive in the morning, and his heart unclenched. Harold's eyes were sympathetic, and John had to find some words. “My hair froze.”

“I have no doubt of that.”

A towel appeared and John scrubbed at his head before pulling it around his ears to help warm him up. “I need a bath.”

“It may take two strong men to get you in and out.” Harold patted John’s knee. “Tell me what happened.”

“I heard the Companion screaming, so I ran to the river.” John let his shoulders settle a bit. Some part of him knew people were crowding close, pulling up chairs, to hear the tale, but he didn’t care. “Somehow, the Herald had gotten herself in a mess. Her head was bloody, and she was clinging to this branch in the middle of the river. Now, her Companion couldn’t reach her because of the drop off, so I jumped, grabbed her. The water rushed us downstream, but her Companion was ready. I grabbed a stirrup, and we brought her back to the wagon.”

Harold’s face was pale. “And you rode her Companion?”

“Had to, or we’d have both frozen to death.” John shrugged. The mare was quite a bit shorter than Rolan so jumping on her had been easy. Betsy had done a great job today. “That mare you bought is a good one. Make sure she gets a hot mash?”

“She’s making me rethink my prejudices against horses, and I will.” Harold got to his feet. “One thing: what did you jump from into the river to grab her?”

“I stood up on the back of the Companion, of course.” John managed to get to his feet. There was a puddle around his boots. He swayed a little.

“Of course.” Harold sighed loudly, and everyone burst into babbling.

John felt his knees tremble. “Harold, I need to lie down.” He was a little embarrassed to show such weakness, but it had been quite a day.

“Catch him!” Harold yelled, and John faded away.

Chapter Text

“Herald John?”

It brought him awake, and he didn’t have a knife, and he met her wide eyes before sitting back down so not to frighten her further. “Herald, how are you feeling?”

She smiled. “I’m Herald Lisa Marshfield, and the Healer fixed me right up. He was in here with you, said you were just exhausted and to let you sleep. Guess you’ll keep your toes.”

“Only need ten.” John didn’t know her, but that was true of a few Heralds that rode the Circuit frequently. He could tell from the cut of her uniform that she was a messenger Herald. “And please, just John.”

“Doesn’t seem proper. You’re the best of us.” She ducked her head away and blushed. “Harold said to tell you there’s a bath and breakfast ready, but don’t come down until you won’t pass out because getting you up the stairs took a fair amount of men.”

And John laughed, rough and hard. “That’s Master Harold.”

“The Master Harold?” Her eyes blew wide, jaw sagging. “He’s a legend of the road! I have to speak to him before I leave! Oh, and my Companion, Jeni, says thank you.”

“She did the hard work.” John got up and took a big stretch, not surprised to hear that Harold was a legend. “Now, out with you while an old man gets dressed.”

She blushed and scurried away. His bag was nearby, and he checked for all his weapons before dressing in his warmest outfit. She might have told Harold who John was, and he hoped not, but it didn’t make any difference. He wasn’t going back.

:Since you refuse to bend, I am going to find a solution.:

John braced himself, but the bond stayed in his mind, and he finally shrugged, going to find soap and food. He’d deal with it when it happened.

“John shena Tale’sedrin! You put clean clothes on your filthy body!” Harold started with the fussing, not letting up until John was chin deep in hot water and another set of clothes was being delivered. Food was put in his hand while he was in the tub, which was ridiculous, but he ate the honey cakes anyway, listening with one ear while Harold nattered on about this and that.

“Herald Lisa tells me that you’re a legend,” John drawled, when Harold took a breath, satisfied with Harold’s blush. “If I’m going to travel in exalted company, you’ve got to pay me more.”

Harold’s mouth flapped open. He shook his head. “The last time I paid you, you gave it away to the nearest orphanage!”

The grin felt weird on his face, and John hoped Jesse forgave him. Ducking under the water was an excellent way to get rid of Harold’s complaints. When he surged up, Harold was gone, but he came back with a cup of hot spiced cider and glared until John drained the cup.

“I’m getting out.” John warned, but Harold just handed him a towel. “Have you worked?”

“Some. The weather is keeping most folk at home.” Harold made sure John had an undershirt on, and John wished, again, that Jesse was alive to see this. “The Healer said you should rest today.”

“Right.” John scrubbed his hair again and ran his fingers through it, tucking his necklace away under the layers. He’d seen Harold’s eyes lingering on it, but Harold had asked no questions, and John wasn’t offering any answers. The less said, the better. “I need a haircut.”

“Oh, I can do that.” Harold waved his hand. “Let’s get more food in you first.”

“I’m going to check our horse.” John touched him very quickly on the shoulder and didn’t meet Harold’s wide eyes. Then he realized what he’d said. ‘Our horse,’ as if John had a stake in Harold’s journey, and after a moment, John decided he did. He could do a lot of good at Harold’s side, especially if he did more than stand around and glower.

John stole a carrot from the kitchen with a wink to the cook and hurried across the courtyard to the barn. It was raining, having melted the snow, and the wind slapped him in the face. The warmth of the barn was a relief, and Betsy was easy to spot because she was so tall. He made much of her, giving her a good brush and feeding her the carrot bit by bit. A whinny made him look that way, and it was the Companion.

Giving Betsy one more pat, he went down to her. “Hello, Jeni.”

She lipped at him, and he got her a big serving of oats. “They don’t understand that you need more feed than a horse your size.” He was willing to give her a good brushing as well. “No leg strain?”

Jeni shook her head. He still ran his hands down to her silvered hooves, checking for hot spots. She allowed it, not even swishing her tail. Hands on her silky hide, he breathed in the scent of her and nearly went to his knees from the grief of what he was missing.

“I can’t go back to Haven,” he whispered. “I never had this anyway. Rolan and I were… business partners, nothing more. He’s seen so much death that he doesn’t want to make that powerful, emotional connection any longer.” He had to take a breath, find his center. “And I don’t blame him. Someday, maybe, he’ll be strong enough to devote himself to each Monarch’s Own like we deserve, but we don’t have the right to ask it of him.”

Her blue eyes shined at him. He put his forehead against her neck. “Sorry. I’m not usually so talkative.”

She blew out and wrapped her neck back to hug him. He let it happen, and then he stepped away. “Thanks.”

And Jeni nodded. He wiped his face dry and hot-footed it back to the warmth of the front room. Harold, who seemed to have some sort of sense for when John appeared, immediately looked at him and pointed at the nearest table. John nodded and took a seat across from the Herald.

“I fed Jeni again. She was hungry.” John’s own stomach growled. The serving lady brought an enormous amount of food, loading the table down. John shouted at Harold, “There’s not ten of us!”

“You eat enough for eight!” Harold yelled back from across the room. Everyone laughed. John made sure the Herald had first choice of the platters and then ate until he couldn’t take another bite. Lisa pronounced herself impressed. John sipped an ale and saluted Harold with it.

“Herald John.” She blanched. “I mean, uh, John, we’re headed to Forst Reach as well. Could we travel together?”

“Of course, but you’d make much better time without us.” John didn’t want her to get in trouble. “Your message isn’t time sensitive?”

“No.” Lisa looked down. “I was foolish to try that river instead of staying on the road.”

“It was a mistake.” John wasn’t going to lie about it. “But you won’t make it again. You’re young, enjoy it, but be more careful. Your Companion wants you to live to a ripe, old age.”

Her face pinched. “You’re right.” She lowered her voice to a bare whisper, “I’m sorry for your loss. He was a great king.”

“That he was.” John found a smile because she needed to see it. “And Morgan will be a great queen, just you watch.”

Lisa beamed at him. “I believe it. Are we leaving early?”

“Before the sun comes up.” John quirked his eyebrow at Harold, who was sitting down next to him. “Master Harold is a hard taskmaster. Gloves and hats are required, and a good coat!”

“That is horrible,” Lisa said, playing along with a small laugh. “The nerve of him!”

“It’s awful.” John nudged Harold gently on the arm. “Oh, Master Harold, I didn’t see you there. Can I help you?”

“No raise for you.” Harold managed a credible glare. “Herald Lisa, the village council is waiting for you, and I arranged for John to get outfitted with proper winter gear.”

“Or, I might hide,” John drawled.

“I know where the barn is!” And Harold smiled.

Herald Lisa gave them a small bow and went to speak with a table full of old men. John was glad it was her instead of him. “Betsy is fine. She’ll be fit for the morning.”

“Good. Three more days, and we’ll be there, or two, if we push.” Harold had his tea, and John filled a trencher for him. “Yes, I’ll eat. Now who’s the mother hen?”

“My turn, I guess.” John needed to know something but asking was difficult. He ducked his head, trying to not be heard by anyone else. “At Forst Reach, I know you said your parents lived there, but… will I be allowed to winter there? I can--.”

“John,” Harold interrupted, putting his hand on John’s. Their eyes met and John swore he felt a lurch in his chest. “I’m an Ashkevron, the second son of the first daughter. I’d prefer not to have to track you down at Winter’s end, so would you please stay at Forst Reach?”

Harold had flipped the question, and now John searched for an answer. John wasn’t sure Forst Reach was the answer, but he couldn’t say no, not with Harold staring at him. “I could train Betsy. She needs work on her voice commands.”

“I’d appreciate it.” Harold’s hand tightened. “Thank you.”

It was shocking how fast John blushed. It left him breathless. Harold got to his feet, groaning the entire way. “Let’s get you a few new clothes, John.”

“Yes, Master Harold.” John stuffed one last hot cake into his mouth and followed Harold down to the clothing shop.

The night was cold, but their camp was made warmer by the fire John laid in the stones. They’d traded for dry wood at the last village, since there’d be little to be had in this weather. Lisa and John moved as a team, setting up camp, and it wasn’t long before they were having some stew.

John made sure there were two good-sized rocks heating up in the fire to put by Harold’s leg tonight. He’d complain about it, but it helped to keep the cold out. Tomorrow should see them at Forst Reach late, and John was glad of it.

The snow had held off, but it was coming, and the elders claimed this winter would see more snow than usual. John had no reason to think them wrong. The air had a bite to it, and the wind was sharp.

The Companion drew her head up sharply, nostrils flaring, and John didn’t hesitate. He had his sword in one hand and the axe in the other before her warning neigh rang out loud and clear.

“Get Harold in the wagon! Move!”

Lisa, to her credit, didn’t argue. John put the fire at his back and the thing that shambled out of the dark roared out its desire to kill them all. The sword was good for keeping it back, and the Companion slashed at it with her hooves. The creature roared and stood up half again as tall as John, and John didn’t think he’d survive its rush.

“Jeni, get back!” John set himself for a run at it when suddenly a pack of wolves – bigger than wolves – began to tear at its back end. The Companion turned and let fly with her hooves, and John threw his axe into its chest.

It screamed, howled, and lunged at him, and John met it with his sword. Inside its huge paws, John yelled his own cry of defiance and pierced it straight through its chest, trying to topple it. Its head came straight down to bite John’s face off, and the wolves jumped in, yanking it backwards. John rode it down, and the thing was howling when a big paw came out of nowhere and threw him away. He hit the ground with a thud, but the thing was down writhing, and before he could recover, the wolves had ripped it apart.

John got to his shaky feet and went to yank his sword free, amazed that he was alive. Jeni nosed at John’s back and he turned partway to protect her from the wolves if necessary. They paced to him, covered with blood, and one sat down.

:We are kyree, not wolves.:

One trotted over and dropped his axe at his feet. John scooped it up. “Thank you.”

Most of the kyree began fading into the shadows, and Jeni dropped her head to blow out. The door to the wagon opened, and Harold shouted, “John?”

“I’m well!” John kept his attention where it belonged. He’d learned about the kyree in class at the Collegium, and of course, stories from his tribe. Stories of the famous Warrl were told at every gathering, but he’d never thought to see one. Remembering they were at least as smart as humans, he asked, “Would you like to join our fire? We have stew.”

How the stew had survived the fight was a miracle. The kyree stood up and shook all over. Harold and Lisa quickly joined John at the fire, talking at the same time, and John didn’t interrupt.

:You are Shin’a’in. I can tell because you’re an idiot.: The kyree seemed to laugh at him before sitting down in front of Harold. Now, John knew Harold was in no danger, but he still edged closer, just in case. Harold looked at John and then into the eyes of the kyree, and it was almost comical to see the look of astonishment take over Harold’s face.

Lisa handed John a rag. “I suspect Harold has been Chosen.”

John wiped off his weapons, feeling for nicks and glad to find none. “He called me an idiot.”

“Jeni says you’re stupidly brave.” Lisa cracked a smile and then began to laugh. John went back to the bucket of water to clean off. He also needed a deep breath. There were slashes in his clothes, but he’d mend them later as his stomach insisted he return to his stew. He could hide his shaking hands around his bowl.

Harold sank down into his chair and the kyree flopped down in the snow at his feet. “His name is Berren, and he Chose me. Me!”

“Breathe, Harold.” John patted him on the knee, enjoying this rare sight. “I don’t have to worry so much any longer. Anyone tries to get at you, he’ll eat them.”

“I would hope not!” Harold took the rag from him and wiped off the blood off Berren’s head. Berren seemed to like it, and Harold smiled at him. “He says I’m his pack, now!”

:You must put up shielding, Shin’a’in. You are leaking misery and grief, and some magical creatures are attracted to it.: Berren sounded indignant in John’s head. :Right now, please.:

John felt a flash of shame. He’d somehow called that creature, nearly killing them all. Concentrating tightly, he found his ground and center and put up the tightest shields he could manage. When he opened his eyes, the kyree gave him a nod. John had always been told his mind gift was small, so he hadn’t even considered that he could be projecting.

“Thank you,” Lisa whispered, and her shoulders seemed to come down a notch.

Setting his half-empty bowl down in front of Berren, John went to check on Betsy to hide his embarrassment. The big mare was so steady that she had pulled her rope to get as far from the creature as possible, but she hadn’t tried to run off. John made sure the straps on her blanket were tight and gave her an extra ration of oats.

While she ate, he stood in her shadow, breathed deeply, and called himself ten kinds of stupid in several languages. He’d nearly killed them all, and now that Harold had a kyree, he wouldn’t need John any longer. Finding the hoof pick took a minute, and John made sure her hooves were free of ice balls as he cursed at himself.

“John, come finish your dinner.” Harold came around the side of Betsy, giving her a pat. “Well, the new bowl I got you after Berren ate yours.”

John nodded, not trusting his voice. He went back to the comfort of the fire and ate because he’d need the energy tomorrow. Lisa gave him a long look, but John ignored it. He finished the food and got to his feet. “Let’s get to bed. Tomorrow will come early.”

They split the work, and John made sure the hot rocks were wrapped in leather and put in Harold’s bed. Harold thanked him after declaring it wasn’t necessary. Berren gave John a nudge and then joined Harold on the bed. At least Harold would be warm.

With the Companion on guard, Lisa and John made a bed of blankets by the door. There was room, and sleeping double was warmer. Once everyone was settled, John blew out the lamp and curled around Lisa.

Sleep was a long time coming.

Betsy was convinced the kyree had plans to eat her, and now that it was daylight, John could see that it was less like a wolf and more like the grass cat found on the plains. At least, it moved like one. Berren enjoyed riding on top of the wagon with his tongue hanging out, and Betsy didn’t like that at all.

After lunch, dark clouds moved in and the wind picked up. Betsy was stopping more than she was pulling, and John was heartily tired of it. “Herald Lisa!” John called her over. “Take Harold and Berren and get your arses to Forst Reach. I’ll meet you there.”

“I don’t think Master Harold is going to like that,” Lisa said, but she was nodding.

Pulling Betsy to a stop, John swung down and went inside the wagon. “Harold, put on your winter gear. You’re going with Herald Lisa on her Companion to Forst Reach.”

“I am certainly not!”

John took one long step and looked down into Harold’s flashing eyes. “Betsy isn’t making her usual time because she’s nervous about your new mindfriend. Now, get your gloves. I’ll meet you there.”

Harold held John’s gaze. “You’ll be safe?” Worry tinged his voice, but that was nothing new.

“You know I will. If you go ahead, I can go faster.” John picked up Harold’s coat and bullied him into it. “Riding a Companion is nothing like a horse. You won’t be in any danger of falling off.”

“I hope not,” Harold grumbled, but he was quickly putting on his snow boots and finding his gloves. “You better make it to Forst Reach within a reasonable time, or I’ll be quite displeased with you.”

“Berren is a powerful Mindspeaker. He can check on me. Now, go.” John had no idea what Berren’s range was, but the words helped get Harold out the door. Lisa was there with her Companion, and John lifted Harold up behind her, ignoring his squawk. “His leg will be bad when you get there. Don’t let him fall.”

“I won’t.” She nodded, Harold wrapped his arms around her, and turned his head to look John in the eyes. John met the gaze, needing him to travel safely. Like a flash, they were all gone down the road. The first snowflakes began to fall, and John went to Betsy and mounted her. She’d keep him warm, and he’d keep her calm. She definitely looked less wild-eyed when Berren disappeared from sight. John nudged her with his toe, and they were moving.

Sitting on her harness wasn’t comfortable, but she was warm, and he pulled his waterproof cloak over his head and tight around his body. Hunching a little into her neck, they went down the road, and the snow fell upon them.

Chapter Text

Betsy snorted, but she had long ago given up on being scared of Berren. She tossed her head but her pace around the circle stayed steady. John ran her through all her voice commands, and then backed her up to the wagon, all without touching her.

Berren jumped to the top of the wagon to see if she would bolt, but she didn’t even flinch. John gave her a candy treat, patted her neck and praised her. She was ready. Harold would be able to handle her with no trouble, and Berren would protect Harold against anyone with poor intentions.

:I don’t like your mood lately, Shin’a’in.:

John didn’t even glance at him, much less answer him. He took Betsy back to her stall. The stablemaster had opened his doors to John simply because he was Shin’a’in, but John tried not to take advantage. The Ashkevrons did have quality stock, not just culls. Rumor among the stable boys said that the Lord was in negotiation for a stallion.

It wasn’t likely, but he supposed it could happen. The Ashkevron stables were much larger than even the ones at the Palace. They bred different types of horses, and each had their own barn with corrals and arenas. There were indoor and outdoor arenas, and John taken advantage of both while he trained Betsy.

The barns were big, wide, made for horses, and John enjoyed spending time just walking the rows, getting to know the occupants. Not that he’d ever crack a smile. There were also several herds of broodmares, kept far away from the stallions.

It was almost like being back in his tribe, where the life was horses, nothing but horses. Betsy was treated like a queen. The stablemaster liked the looks of her and talked with John several times about breeding her. John had no desire to travel with a pregnant horse, as he’d just gotten Harold used to her.

Life here was set to the pace of the horses, and John flitted along the edges, not able to fit in and unable to leave, not yet, at least.

Harold was part of the family, and he attended the family dinners and had a suite of rooms. John refused to consider either. He found a different place for his bedroll every night, usually in a hay barn but occasionally near a fireplace that the stable boys used. He ate in the kitchens. Some of the servants thought he was a deaf and mute and were really very rude. He didn’t care a demn bit.

“Scary, tall man! I have a message for you!”

He turned to face the small boy and tipped him a copper, even though it wasn’t required. “Thank you, good sirrah.”

The boy stared down at the coin for a very long time before looking up with a wide smile. “I’m rich!” And he ran off.

Tearing open the message, John found that Lord Ashkevron was in need of his services. With a long sigh, he started for the dining hall. Ashkevron Manor was more of a castle and a complete maze. It was if a madman had designed it. It would be easy to get turned around and never find the way back out.

John caught Harold’s eye as he entered the hall and took the spot next to him, directing his attention to the head of the table. “How can I help you, Lord Ashkevron?”

The Lord wasn’t young or old, tall or short, fat or skinny. He was bland like oatmeal, but the servants said he was a good master, not a temper tantrum in him. He did have six children, and John thought that was probably too many.

Harold’s elbow was just touching him, and John thought the rest had done him good. He had gained some weight, his color was back, and his eyes shined. John thought the same of Betsy though, so he kept his thoughts to himself.

“I need a respectable man to take a message to several villages. The weather has cleared, and the roads are good. You will, of course, have your choice of my stables.” Lord Ashkevron was Harold’s uncle, but there was little resemblance between them. John had put Harold’s age about five years older than himself, so the uncle must be in his sixties, but he didn’t look it.

“I thought you might like to go for a ride,” Harold said, pouring an ale and handing it to John.

“How much will you pay me?” John let the words growl. It wasn’t a terrible idea, but he didn’t want Lord Ashkevron thinking that John would come at his beck and call.

The Lord looked at Harold. Harold’s eyebrows were up. John just looked at him, waiting. Harold broke the silence. “Five silvers?”

“Ten. I’ll have to stay at inns,” John grumbled. He didn’t need the money, but he wasn’t working for Lord Ashkevron for free. It would ruin his surly reputation.

Even though Lord Ashkevron looked surprised, he nodded and commanded one of his servants to get the money. John ate some cheese and drank his ale. “Betsy is ready to pull your wagon. You don’t have to worry about her knocking you down.”

Harold slipped some meat under the table so Berren was down there somewhere. “She is very tall.” He seemed to hesitate, and then, “Midwinter Festival is soon. I hope you will join me.”

A servant delivered a map, the messages, and a bag of coin, giving John a hard look. John drained his ale, picked it all up, and got to his feet, not caring what they thought of him. “Berren can keep you company,” he said, and he left him there. Walking around a Fair with him, maybe pretending to smile, just wasn’t possible.

It was barely midday, so he told the stablemaster that he needed a horse and let him choose one. John tucked everything away in one of his saddlebags, put his sword on his back, and reluctantly left his bow in the wagon.

The stablemaster met him outside the barn with a horse who was blowing hard before they’d even begun. John wondered where they’d had this horse hidden, because he hadn’t seen him in a stall.

John stroked his hand down the intelligent face, saw the strength in him, and mounted the tall, fiery chestnut with a smooth jump. The Shin’a’in bred riding horse, not a cull, went up to his strong back legs, and John let him stand there until he chose to drop down, snorting.

“The gelding might need a little work.” The stablemaster grinned, thinking he was ahead of the game.

John adjusted his seat and ran his hand down the chestnut’s thick neck. A squeeze of his legs with loose reins, and they were going. John had a feeling that if he sold the horse, no one would complain the loss, even though the horse was lovely, all red, not a speck of white on him. He had far too much spirit to live in a stall, and his temper was because of his boredom.

They were far down the road before the horse realized it might be better to conserve some energy for the rest of the day. John liked him, and it was nice to be on a taller horse. He tossed his head far too much, but John asked him to behave instead of forcing him. The bit was too strict, and John would switch it out at the first village.

After doing groundwork with Betsy for the last month, riding took all his attention. John knew he was surly, but he wasn’t apologizing. He wasn’t a servant, and he wasn’t Harold’s lover – ridiculous - and there was no place for him at Forst Reach. It’d been a fool’s idea to winter here.

The stablemaster wanted him to train horses all day, and the weaponmaster wanted him to teach classes. They hadn’t asked him. They’d assumed he’d do what they said, and John wasn’t anyone’s servant.

In his heart, he was still the King’s Own, not willing to take orders from anyone but King Jesse, and he doubted that would ever change.

:You are bored and cranky. It happens every winter.:

It was the first John had heard from Rolan since the incident at the river. John focused on their bond and sent irritation at it. Rolan would ignore him anyway, but he was right. Winters were difficult for him. He reined the horse down from a trot to a walk, finally getting him to settle so John could actually look at the map as to where they were going.

“We’ll get there by nightfall, so don’t worry about your oats,” John said, and the horse flicked his ears back and forth. “Kathal, jel’sutho’edrin.”

The red chestnut started trotting again. John shook his head at the horse’s enthusiasm. The snow crunched under the horse’s hooves, and the wind occasionally swirled up some snowflakes. It was cold but not bitter. John could admit that maybe he’d needed a good ride to clear his head.

He’d apologize to Harold when he returned. The road curved, and some deer bolted away. The chestnut thought that was a fine idea, but John refused to let him. After some half-hearted bucking, they started down the road again.

“A bit of work? No one has ridden you in ages.” John thought the bucking had shaken his gloomy attitude loose. He glanced to his right and saw a Waystation back off the road. It wouldn’t hurt to make sure it was stocked, and he reined his horse in that direction.

Another small argument, but John kept him moving, almost glad to swing down at the small stable connected to the Waystation. He tied him tight before beginning to check supplies. There was plenty of everything, and John locked the door behind him. The horse snorted, and John sat down on the small step for just a moment.

The sun was high, the wind was light, and he could smell the thick pine trees. He tilted his head up to the sky and let his eyes shut. His shields were tight, and he made sure of them again. Goddess, he missed his Jesse, and the fact that he always would, weighed heavy in his heart. It was a grief like a wound that refused to close.

His horse neighed, and he was up and moving in a flash. He kept a tight hold and mounted just before the chestnut reared. Whatever was in the trees fell far behind them as John let his horse run a bit before bringing him back to a canter and then a trot. Finally, the chestnut was willing to walk.

“That’s a good boy,” he whispered in the language of his childhood. The fireball of a horse began to prance. John patted him on the neck and decided to keep him. He was wasted at Forst Reach. He’d take him back to the basics and then let him show off what he could do.

Thinking about that brought John around to the problem that Berren was picking up on in his irritating way. He wasn’t sure he wanted to travel with Harold and his wagon. Harold would be fine now that he had the kyree to guard him. He didn’t need John, or anyone else. The idea of leaving him was like a sore tooth, and John kept poking at it.

:Chosen, do not make Berren’s assessment of your intellectual capabilities a reality.:

“Fancy talk for a horse,” John muttered. Rolan had been showing off. John wasn’t an idiot, not often, but he just wasn’t sure, and he wanted to be. Should he return to the plains? What if his Goddess had plans for him?

Fireball brought John’s attention back to him by breaking into a bone-jarring trot, and John shook his head as he pushed the horse into a canter. It wasn’t even Midwinter yet, he wasn’t going anywhere for at least two moons, and that thought made him growl under his breath.

The first village came up fast, appearing from the trees, and John kept Fireball to a walk when they entered it. He tossed his head, and he snorted out a big breath when John dismounted in front of the inn. A stable boy came at a run, but John shooed him away, not trusting Fireball. The stable was clean, tidy and since it was nearly dark, they were here until morning.

The stableman poked his head around the corner. “One of Ashkevron’s demon horses?”

“My arse thinks so.” John began to vigorously brush him down, glad to see he wasn’t a biter. “I need a boy to take a message to your village leader.”

“He’s having his usual ale inside. Can’t miss him. Big balding fellow, Stills is his name.” The stableman provided the fodder and oats, and John tossed him a silver before slinging his saddlebags over his shoulder. The inn was full of men who looked as bored as John felt. The place had seen better days, cracked dirty-white plaster with thick black beams. The roof might’ve even sagged a bit, but the fire was warm.

Stills was at a table with a few others, and John went there first, not caring for the looks they gave him.

“Message from Lord Ashkevron.” John dug it out and handed it to him without fanfare. Job done; John went to find a table near the back where he could eat in peace. A serving girl met him there, and he tried not to scare her with his gloomy face. “Food and a room?”

“One silver,” she said. “If you want to be warm, sleep by the fire. If you don’t mind a bit of cold, head upstairs.” She pocketed the silver with a smile. “I’ll get you food and ale.”

“Lots of it.” John thought she over-charged him by half to pocket the rest, but he didn’t care. She did bring him plenty of food, and he ate it all, having worked up an appetite fighting Fireball half the day.

“Did you get left behind when the Shin’a’in finished their Horse Fair last year?” It was Stills, and he sat down with an ale in his hand and a sneer on his face.

“No.” John didn’t offer his name. He was in no mood to talk about anything, not even horses, especially with this fellow.

“Well, you’re not an Ashkevron.” Stills laughed, but it was mean, and his table of friends joined him.

John had a nasty feeling in his gut that this wasn’t going to end well. He flipped a knife into his hand and stabbed the table with it. “I’m not looking for trouble.”

Stills narrowed his eyes. “Shaych sleep in the barn.” He wasn’t joking now. “Decent folk in this village.”

“Shove off.” John finished his ale and got to his feet. He loomed over him, and Stills flushed. Wiping his knife on his leg, he took his saddlebags upstairs. Some people could just tell. It had never been a problem in Haven, but he was far from civilization. One room was much smaller than the rest, and he pushed a chair to block the door. It’d give him some warning. The bed was big enough for two, and he wrapped himself around his saddlebags. Tucking the blankets close, he fell asleep with his hand on his knife.

The next village was tiny, barely a bump off a well-beaten trail, and since it was just before midday, John kept moving after delivering the message. Fireball was still enthusiastic about going down the road, but he was better behaved today, not as much bucking. The inn had filled John’s saddlebag with travel food, and he ate in the saddle, sharing his apple with Fireball.

The sun was long gone when he trotted into the third and final village, and he was glad to see it was large enough to boast a big inn with a stable. He took care of Fireball himself before going inside. The fire was welcome, and he sat close to it.

“Food and a room?”

“Please.” John gave her a silver, not caring that it was too much. “I have a message for the village headman.”

“I’ll send a lad for him.” She smiled, and he nodded. She was back quickly, and John tucked in, hungry. The ale was good, and he drank two without slowing down.

“There a message fer me?”

John turned and handed it to him. “From Lord Ashkevron.” And he went back to finish his bread. The fire drove away the cold, and he listened to the folk around him talk about the snow, livestock, and crops. He could never be part of that life. His years in service to the Crown would always set him apart, but he couldn’t imagine going back to live on the plains. His tribe was his family, but he didn’t know them any longer.

He reached inside his shirt and brought out his ring, staring down at it. It fit his finger nicely, always had, and he smiled. Jesse would understand. If the Goddess wanted John, she’d have to send someone for him. He wasn’t leaving Valdemar.

It seemed like a big decision, and he breathed easier now that it was clear to him. He finished his meal, put a third ale in his hand, and turned his thoughts to Harold. Traveling with him would be easy, almost too easy.

Harold would laugh at that because he had no affection for brigands or wild beasts.

“Are you that Shin’a’in what travels with Master Harold?” The headman pulled a chair over to sit across from him.

“Yes.” John gave him his full attention.

“He comes through here in early Spring. We need help with a broken dam. Can you tell him?” The man was quiet, intense, not as old as some village leaders.

“I will.” John nodded. He wanted to know something. “Is everyone talking about me?”

“Oh, aye. You see,” the man grinned, “the King had himself a Shin’a’in, saved the King a time or two, and now the King is dead, and Master Harold shows up with a Shin’a’in? Some folks think there’s only one of them in Valdemar. Sure, they come with their horses, every once and again, but all of them go home.” He had a sly look on his face. “Folks like to gabble.”

“Gossip travels faster than Heralds.” John didn’t see how, but it was true. He wasn’t going to give them the truth. Instead, he went to the other news. “Master Harold can fix a dam?”

“He can fix anything.” He nodded vigorously. “Master of Engineering, Master of Geology, Master of, well, you get the idear. People brag about him around here. Went to Haven, came home a full master in all the learning. Only took him three years!”

“That’s impressive,” John said with real wonder in his voice. “I’d think he’d be holed up in Haven, teaching the younglings.”

“Well, he came home to build a fancy, fine machine that was gonna replace horses.” The headman shook his head as if that was crazy. “Dem thing exploded, killed his older brother, Nathan, and left him a cripple ‘cause the Healer couldn’t heal both his neck and his leg.

When he healed up, he left the manor. Most of us thought he were gone for good, but he travels about, helping folks. Some of us think he’s paying his dues, trying to make up for whut he did.”

“Master Harold is a good man.” John had seen the pain in Harold’s eyes on occasion, and now he knew the story. Perhaps, it was time Harold knew John’s and then Harold could make up his mind whether he wanted to travel Valdemar with a renegade Herald.

“Heyla, King’s Own, my name is Logan, come on home with me tonight. I gots a real bed fer you.” The man clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ll send you off with a good brekky and a message fer the Lord.”

John nodded, thinking it had to be better than another cold room upstairs. He grabbed up his saddlebags and followed him home. His cottage wasn’t too far, and it was comfortable. No wife met them, but Logan didn’t seem to feel the lack. The fire was cozy, the ale was good, and John spent an enjoyable evening. He woke up in the morning with a sore head and Logan curled onto his shoulder.

It was confusing for a moment. He didn’t remember any groping, and his pants were still on, which was a relief. Giving Logan a nudge, he got up, took a stretch, and went outside to take care of business. He came back with a shiver and washed up. Logan did the same, and they exchanged a grin before starting breakfast. John helped where there was room, and Logan was a good cook.

They ate together, and John brought up a touchy subject. “That bald village man, Stills?”

“Ah, that arse hole.” Logan nodded. “Don’t sleep there. He thinks everyone is shaych that durn’t travel with a woman. Rude bastard.”

“He is that.” John would avoid that village on the way back. “Thank you for everything.”

“Thankee for yer service to Valdemar.” Logan slapped him on the back. “Do me a favor and look after Master Harold, ‘stead of going back to the plains.”

Surprised, John stopped chewing and swallowed. “Why would you think that?”

“You have the look of a feller looking fer home.” Logan shrugged. “I durn’t think you can go back, not after so many years here.”

“I don’t think so either.” John scrapped his plate clean. “Message?”

“Ah!” Logan went to the front room and got it for him. John tucked it away, gave him a thump on the arm, and went to get his horse moving towards Forst Reach. He bought more travel foods at the inn to fill his saddlebags before going to Fireball.

Fireball was living up to his name, terrorizing the stableman, and John clapped his hands to distract him. The stableman stepped far away. “He’s a menace!”

“He needs time and attention.” John grabbed a brush and went to work on him, rewarding him with a piece of candy when he stood for it. The saddle was good enough, so John had the stableman find him a new bit. Fireball tossed his head vigorously, but once the gentle bit was in, he looked surprised.

John hoped it would cure some of the anger. Either that, or he’d run away with John hanging on for dear life. Taking him out to the courtyard, John tipped the stablemaster two coppers and stood right in front of Fireball. He stroked his hand down his nose and leaned in until Fireball’s hooves stopped dancing.

He whispered to him in Shin’a’in until his ears were forward, and then John mounted, but easily, not with a thump. Fireball flicked an ear back, and John praised him, leaving the reins slack and using his thighs to get him moving. It was a good first step.

Of course, Fireball took off like a shot not long after, but John was ready for him. It was time to go home to Harold.

Chapter Text

“John?”

Not taking his eyes off his horse, John answered, “What do you need, Harold?”

“Well, if you must know, you.” Harold had a tremble in his voice.

Fireball thundered to the far end of the arena as John turned to face Harold, who wisely stayed on the other side of the fence. John went to him, kept the fence between them, and let Fireball prance.

“I like sleeping in the barn, Harold.” John led with that, but he didn’t like the bit of sadness in Harold’s eyes, or the idea that John had put it there.

“I’m aware.” Harold rolled his eyes. “But we need to go over supplies, clean out the wagon, make any structural changes, and give it a good wash.” He paused, wringing his hands. “You’re still going with me?”

Harold sounded so unsure that John tried to find a smile for him, pretty sure he failed. “I have decided to travel with you, yes, Harold. I’m not changing my mind on that, so please tell Berren to stop glaring at me.”

“He doesn’t!” Harold sighed. “He just worries.”

“Feeding him is going to be a trick. We may have to take a herd of cattle with us.” John kept one eye on his horse. And Fireball was his. The stablemaster had tried to take him, and John had blocked him, saying, ‘Lord Ashkevron gave me choice of the stable. He’s mine, now.’ The stablemaster had gone off with a glare, but John didn’t care. They didn’t deserve a fine horse like Fireball.

Any Shin’a’in would agree with John on that point.

“Yes, well, Berren can hunt, or so he says.” Harold stepped closer and lowered his voice. “I’m heartily tired of my family, and… and… I miss you.”

The words seemed torn from him. John hung his head. He’d felt the same, but he wasn’t going to risk shaming Harold by going to the manor house. Another awkward moment, and John growled, “Let me put Fireball away, and we can make some plans.”

Harold seemed to slump with relief, and then he tilted his head. “You named him? You’re not training him for the stablemaster?”

“Harold, I’m not a servant. My place here is… murky. And Fireball is a fine Shin’a’in-bred gelding, who never should’ve been sold off the plains. He’s coming with me.”

“You’re certainly not a servant!” Harold’s voice rang out, making Fireball toss his head. “I’ll make that abundantly clear!”

“Oh, Harold.” John rubbed his hair. “I’ll meet you at the wagon.”

“I’ll have tea brought out.” Harold limped away, and the kyree popped up to follow him.

John chirped and held out his hand, and Fireball danced over for a piece of candy. “Later, little brother, we’ll play some more.” He hooked on the lead rope and took him to his stall, brushing him down and making sure the outside run was open and there was plenty of hay. That done, he washed up and started for the wagon.

Harold was already inside, and John leaned into the opening. “You want me to get Betsy and move it into a barn, so we can work without freezing our arses off?”

“Please,” Harold said. “I can’t feel my face.”

Betsy was happy for the work, and John had Harold use the voice commands to get her in the traces, and they both hooked her up. “Easy, huh?”

“She is magnificent.” Harold gave her a tiny pat on the shoulder. “That gelding is going to run me over first chance he gets.”

“If he does, I’ll feed him to Berren.” John walked ahead while Harold rode in the back, and they took the wagon into the big hay barn. It blocked the wind and had a large open space to work. Betsy stopped on command, and John unhooked her to put her away. Harold handed him some tea when he returned.

“Thanks.” John sipped it, glad of the warmth. “Let’s turn it into a shop first.”

“Good idea.”

They worked at that until Harold pronounced himself satisfied and by then the tea was gone. John found a piece of parchment and a charcoal stick to make notes. Harold had a lot of ideas as he sorted through tools, bits and bobs. John wrote it all down.

“Enough. Let’s go to the main hall and find a carpenter to help us.” Harold closed the sides and the door, and John followed after him with the list. Berren jumped out of some hay and trailed them. He was always close.

John went with him, glad for the warmth. They pulled a small table over close to the fire and began to go through the list. Harold made another list, complaining about John’s chicken scratch, and servants brought more tea and food. John tossed a meat roll to Berren, who snapped it out of the air.

“Valdemaran isn’t my first language,” John said, feeling as if he should defend himself.

“I’d never have guessed,” Harold drawled. “What is the last one here?”

“More jerky.” John had to look twice to be certain. “Or maybe that’s candy, not sure.”

Harold wrote them both down on the new list.

“The back axle is worrying me. I’m going to have the blacksmith look at it. I certainly wouldn’t want a broken axle out on the road.”

If Harold thought it needed replacing, it did. Sleeping with the horses had given John plenty of time to think, and he hesitated to ask, but before they left again, he wanted to know. He wanted to give a Harold a choice. Traveling with a hired man was one thing, but a disgraced Herald was something else entirely.

“Harold, how long have you known who I am?” John remembered a few looks and hoped he was drawing the right conclusion.

Harold jerked his head up, flushing red. He opened his mouth, shut it, and then whispered, “Since that Fall day on the Trade road.”

“Sheka.” John sighed, shaking his head. “You could have said.”

“You were not in the mood to hear it.” Harold shrugged. “I assumed Rolan would be along at some point to whisk you away.”

“I think he’s given up on me.” John kept his voice very low. “He’s still here though.” He pointed at his head. “He says I’m selfish.”

“He’s wrong. You were broken.” Harold also spoke softly. “Losing your lifemate like that? I would’ve gone mad.”

“I had you to look after.” John flushed, afraid a tear might leak out. “I thought I might head back to the plains, but Valdemar is my home now. I want to try to do some good before I go to the Goddess.”

“Let’s hope that isn’t for many years.” Harold put his hand on John’s arm. “Will Rolan repudiate you?”

“Yes. I already repudiated him in a grand scene that still makes me embarrassed down to my toes.” John covered Harold’s hand with his own. “Be prepared. It might kill me.”

“We shall have to hope it doesn’t.” Harold shut his eyes for a moment and took a ragged breath that John heard clearly. “Berren will probably be able to help. He’s a powerful Healer.”

John tilted his head, surprised to hear it. “Your leg?”

“He’s been working on it. It’s better, less pain.” Harold seemed a bit embarrassed about it. “He said I’m a fool.”

“Well, he called me an idiot.” John tossed him another meat roll. “I’m glad he’s helping you.”

He took a deep breath, asking the question. “Harold, I’m a disgraced Herald, some would say a traitor to the Crown. Villagers are starting to talk, and you, well, you might be the worse for traveling with me.”

“John shena Tale’sedrin, I will never be worse for having you by my side.” Harold’s eyes bored into John’s, and he sounded sure of his words. “And I will have you punch anyone who breathes a word of that nonsense.”

A chuckle forced its way from John’s throat. “I’m usually reluctant to start fights.”

“You’ve discovered my ability to find trouble, so don’t test it.” Harold gave him a stern glare with no heat behind it. He scooted his chair even closer. “Have you asked your Goddess about Rolan? From what I’ve heard in my travels over the years, She often takes a direct hand in Her followers. There’s a full moon in two days.”

Shaking his head, John didn’t want to discuss it. He’d think about it, but he wasn’t worthy of her scrutiny.

“Why am I afraid for the kingdom?” It was Harold’s uncle, strolling over to their cozy spot, ale in hand and a smile on his face.

“Because if we wanted it, we’d have it.” John smiled, but it was the one that made people very afraid.

Harold actually laughed. “Oh, Uncle, he’s teasing. Swallow your ale without choking. I’m afraid you aren’t getting that red demon horse back. John has taken a liking to him.”

“I said he had his choice of the stables, dear Nephew.” The lord gave John a very uneasy look. “It’s the least we owe him for saving your life.”

John nodded. “Twice!”

“I don’t recall any of that,” Harold drawled. “Berren agrees with me.”

“Of course, he does,” John growled, but he was amused.

“You’ve always been able to find trouble without looking.” Harold’s uncle shook his head with a grin. “Have you told him how you came to limp so heavily?”

The color drained from Harold’s shocked face. John, not amused any longer, got to his feet, took the ale from the Lord’s hand, and said, “Let’s get you a refill. I have some questions about your Horse Fair, and we need to talk about the other unmanageable horses in your stable.”

“Of course!” The Lord went along without resisting. “My stablemaster was a trifle put out with you for stealing the red gelding.”

“Good.” John put on all the airs of the King’s Own that he’d left behind in Haven and spent the afternoon making Lord Ashkevron feel important, while getting him to agree that Forst Reach would allow John to train horses that were beyond the stablemaster’s abilities and find them good homes. That last part was important. They wouldn’t be sold. They’d be given away.

It was very possible the stablemaster might be encouraged to try a bit harder with his horses. John had two in mind that he’d never seen outside a stall. If they turned out well, he might send them on to Haven and the stables there.

When dinner arrived, John made his excuses and went to find Harold. He spotted Berren first and followed him upstairs to what he hoped was Harold’s suite. Berren nudged at the door, and John opened it for him. Dinner had been laid out in the front room with large meat portions and bones for Berren.

“You got it good, buddy.” John smiled down at Berren’s rolled out tongue. “No wonder you’re getting fat.”

:I am not! Now, be nice to Harold. He’s sad.:

“Harold! Can I eat now?” John took a good look around. This suite wasn’t as nice as the ones in the palace, but it wasn’t shabby either. He wandered over to a table by a window and noticed an axe, just sitting there. He picked it up, unable to help himself, surprised to see it had a hammer on the backside of the blade.

Hefting it, he liked the weight of it, and the bottom of the handle had a type of lever with a sharp edge, good for prying things up. Harold came around the corner and flushed. John tossed it in the air and caught it. “Great weapon.”

“I had it made for you.” Harold gave him a sharp look. “I was worried your hands were too big for it.”

John tossed it again, catching it easily. “I think you got it right.” He tucked it in his belt and nodded. “Thank you, Master Harold.”

“Please don’t kill anyone with it, John shena Tale’sedrin.” Harold went towards the table with the food. He patted Berren on the head and took a seat. “Will you join me?”

“Berren wanted that chair.” John sat down and also patted Berren on the head, glad to get his fingers back. “Your uncle and I agreed that he has too many horses.”

“I’m shocked.” Harold did look surprised. “Ashkevrons are famous for horses!”

“Yes, but if all they’re doing is rotting in stalls, no Shin’a’in will ever sell to him again.” John was sure of that. “I know two that are never used for anything, not even given an apple. So, I’m going to make sure they’re trained properly, and they’re going with us. I’ll send them on to the Queen in Haven when they’re finished.”

“I’m sure the Crown would love to have them.” Harold seemed sincere. “Uncle doesn’t allow the mares to be bred unless he approves it.”

“Good policy.” John loaded his trencher, glad to see meat. Sometimes it was a bit scarce when he ate in the kitchen. They ate in silence for several minutes, and John needed to speak to him about topics best avoided. “Do you know the village headman, Logan?”

“Yes,” Harold said cautiously, giving him a look filled with suspicion.

“I mean, do you know him.” John wasn’t sure how to broach this subject.

“Do I know he most likely tried to maneuver you into his bed? Yes.” Harold’s voice snapped at him. “Do I know he’s the biggest gossip in this part of Valdemar? Yes.”

John nodded, wincing as Berren cracked a bone in half. “He did, and he is.”

“He can fix his own dam,” Harold muttered under his breath. His shoulders came down a bit though as he realized he didn’t need to fill John in on the details of his injury, and he sighed. “Tell me about Fireball.”

It was a good safe topic. John let himself ramble, trying to make Harold smile, and not knowing why he cared when it worked. When the meal was finished, and Berren was asleep on a sofa, Harold put his hand on John’s arm. John froze, thinking it might be time to run.

“Sleep here. I have a bedroom for you. Please, please stop sleeping with the horses.” Harold’s eyes were wide behind his glasses. “I don’t want to hunt you down in the barns any longer.”

“You could send Berren to get me.” John sighed, giving up, but he still thought it was a risk Harold shouldn’t take with his reputation. “Harold, the servants will talk if I stay here.”

“Let them. I don’t care, and neither should you.” Harold gave him a squeeze. “Vanyel cured most of the Ashkevrons of their prejudices ages ago!”

John had heard the Vanyel Cycle performed at Court more times than he could count. He always ached for Stefan, doomed to live a long life without his lifebonded. “He came to a bad end, Harold.”

“He’s a hero in this household.” Harold looked firm on that point. He gave John a small pat on the arm. “Also, you need new clothes. If you’re going to travel with such exalted company.”

“Sheka, te’sorthene.”

The moon was high in the dark sky when John pulled himself up on Fireball and took him out of the barn. He hadn’t been sure he was going to petition until he’d seen the fat moon hanging there, almost daring him. He didn’t expect to be answered, but at least he’d be able to tell Harold that he’d tried.

The night was freezing cold, but it wasn’t snowing any longer. He was riding bareback, not having bothered with anything more than a bridle. Fireball was thrilled to be going, and John let him trot to a high pasture, plowing through the snow, before taking him in circles that he made smaller and smaller. They walked the last two, and Fireball got his piece of candy.

Finally, he pulled Fireball to a stop and slid off, going to his knees in the snow under a full winter moon. He kept the reins in his fist and dropped his shields, not sure what to else to do. Fireball nosed at John’s hair, and John took a deep breath, ready for disappointment.

In the next breath, he was yanked on to the moonpaths, staring confused into the face of the Star-Eyed One. Panicking, he tried to drop to his knees, but she prevented it with nothing more than a flicked hand.

“I hear your heart, Tale’sedrin.”

John was glad because he wasn’t sure he could form words. His heart raced, and he felt grubby, standing before Her. He’d never thought to have Her regard. She was beautiful, and he wanted to fall into Her eyes.

“It’s not your time yet. You have many years before you will join me.” She lifted Her arm, made a fast slicing motion, and he felt as if a cord inside him had been cut, severed, and he cried out in pain. Her smile kept him on his feet. “The bond with Rolan is gone. He is not happy with Me, but he mistreated one of Mine, and I will not allow it to continue.”

“He did his best.” The words ground out of him, and he felt so empty. Now, he’d truly lost it all, no longer a Herald. He felt as if he should apologize to Rolan, and John couldn’t help but defend him.

“His poor best, but he is not so old that he cannot learn from this.” The Star-Eyed took him by the hand. “You will be My Envoy inside of Valdemar, and I wish you to look after our younger brothers and sisters as you travel.”

“I’m not good enough to represent You.” He was sure of that.

“You are Mine, and you please Me.” She squeezed his hand. “Be sure of that. I also approve of your lifebonded, the Ashkevron.”

John jerked, confused, and he was reluctant to accept it, but the truth of his Goddess would not be denied. Poor Harold, he was saddled with John for the rest of their lives. This also made him question what he’d shared with Jesse. Had any of it been real? He’d felt it so strongly.

She smiled. “There are many types of bonds, and one of your Gifts is that you make them easily. Grieve for your Jesse, but he would not want you to cast aside other bonds for him.”

“You’re right.” And John was comforted by Her words. He hadn’t imagined his bond with Jesse. It’d been real, true, and losing it had nearly killed him. His heart hurt, and there was a gaping hole of pain where his bond with Rolan had been. “Is Rolan well?”

“He has Chosen another, but the bell did not ring.” She gave him a fond look. “Always with a big heart, and it will heal. I will tell the shamans that you have returned to serve Me. Go back, John shena Tale’sedrin, before the kyree begins to howl.”

John dropped into his body, taking a huge gasp of air. He was slumped over in the cold, wet snow, reins still in his fist, with Berren stretched out on top of him. “Berren! Get off me!”

Berren jumped off and licked his face. :You were gone, Shin’a’in!:

“Just walking the moonpaths.” John rebuilt his shields before getting to his knees. He felt bereft, even a touch old, as if he’d been wounded in battle. It hurt to breathe, and his head felt like he’d taken several punches, but She had claimed him as Her own. He had what he’d wanted, but it hurt, and knowing the truths of Jesse and Harold made him gasp in shock. “Help me up, fur face.”

One hand in Berren’s ruff and a steady horse got John to his feet. He was soaked through to skin and his clothes would freeze long before he made it back to Forst Reach. “Run ahead to Harold and stir up the fire, Berren.”

With a long howl, Berren ran ahead. John mounted with a shaky jump and gave Fireball his head. Fireball proved his worth that night, moving quickly but carefully, and taking him towards the nearest door. John did little more than hang on, not even touching the reins, but Fireball didn’t put a hoof wrong. The cold and wind were bitter, freezing him, and he couldn’t seem to think, just feel, and he felt nothing but hurt.

Harold met them at the door, and Berren snatched the reins to take Fireball to a stall as John slid off to land in a frozen heap. Harold, crippled though he was, got John moving towards their suite.

Shivering, teeth chattering, John let Harold help him to his private bath while demanding he make sure someone take care of Fireball. Getting him out of the frozen pants took a knife, and Harold fussed and grumbled, but he sent a boy to make sure the stablemaster knew. The water felt like heaven, and John slid under with a groan.

Thoughts of Jesse weighed heavy on his mind, and the news that Harold was his lifebonded made him feel too much. He took off his necklace and handed it out to Harold, who set it aside. Their hands slid in a small touch, and John shivered.

No longer Herald John, but still the King’s Own in his heart, John let a few tears leak because he could scrub them away.

There was tea, of course, and John didn’t complain when Harold washed his hair. Finally warm, John was escorted to his bed, which had heat pans underneath it. “Thanks for sending Berren.”

“You should’ve told me.” Harold glared, piling another blanket on him. “I just had this feeling that you were in trouble, so I sent Berren to find you in a panic.”

“I knelt down to pray and She yanked me to the moonpaths. I didn’t ask Her, but She cut the bond with Rolan.” John propped himself up on a couple of pillows, deeply tired. “He’s Chosen again,” he whispered, and he was glad through the hurt, and he was ashamed that he was glad. “When we get to Haven, I have to present myself as an Envoy from the Shin’a’in to the Queen.”

“Oh, my.” Harold’s eyes were wide behind his glasses. “I guess you work for Her now.”

“And She told me that I’m to travel with you.” John might tell him the rest later. Berren jumped up on the bed and stretched out next to him. “Thanks, fur face.”

Harold scratched him behind the ears. “I suppose I have to make friends with Fireball now.” He groaned. “He’s so fierce!”

“He’s less of a fireball and more of a warm fire.” John yawned, feeling his jaw crack. His head and heart hurt, but he felt… less sad. “Good night, Harold.”

“Good night, John.”

But Harold sat with him, and John liked it far too much.

Upon waking, John’s hand went to his necklace, as always, and it wasn’t there. He sat up, a little panicked, to find the ring upon his finger. He stared down at it, thinking that Harold had put it on him.

It was flashy, bound to get noticed, but… he liked it there. He sat up, rubbed his face, and decided his head hurt or his heart. He wasn’t sure, maybe it was both.

Berren trotted in his room, and Harold wasn’t far behind. His arms were full of brightly-colored clothing – the clothing of John’s childhood. John frowned. “Those aren’t my clothes.”

Harold put everything on the bed. “I checked your bag and dressing room. This is all you have, and I didn’t do it!”

“The Goddess isn’t taking any chances,” John said, scooping up a loose, red shirt and putting it on. Even his boots were now the soft-soled leather that the Shin’a’in preferred. “Thanks for getting my ring from the bath.”

Frowning, Harold spread his hands. “I’m sorry. I forgot it.”

John knuckled the ring into his chest. It’d stay on his hand where She had put it. “Never argue with a woman, Harold.”

Chapter Text

Giving in to Harold’s plea meant that he’d live in the suite. John slept in his own room, and he left early before the servants came in, spending his mornings working with his horses. The two he’d pulled from their stalls had never been broken to ride; nice mares that were like kittens. He supposed somehow, they’d just been overlooked. They weren’t fancy colored, but their conformation was excellent, and they moved like a dream.

Fireball continued to advance in his training, and John didn’t use a bit with him any longer. Harold had helped adapt the bridle, and John had given it a trinket or two to make it shine. It not only looked good, but Fireball lowered his head to wear it – the showoff. John had sewn a thick, sheepskin pad to the top of the saddle and replaced the stirrups to fit his long legs. He’d ride in comfort.

John wore his Shin’a’in clothes, even though he felt like a peacock after so many years of bland white. The boots had slits for knives, and the shirt sleeves were tailored for sheath knives on his forearms. Harold called him a walking knife shop, so John didn’t tell him about the ones on the saddle. He still refused to eat with the family more than once a week.

Harold didn’t argue about that.

In the afternoons, they worked on their wagon, making it much more comfortable for Harold, against his protests. They also added rings to the back for tying the horses. Berren insisted they have a sun/rain screen for the seat, and Harold made a very clever one that folded away when it was windy.

They’d discussed rebuilding the front of the wagon to be more like a travelers’ wagon, but Harold hadn’t wanted the weight. His contraption protected them, and it was fairly light. John had decided not to argue about it.

John had protested when Harold installed a rail around the top of the wagon. Berren had laughed. They’d also put a hot coal brazier inside the wagon. It was a clever little heater, and of course, Harold improved it. Now, if there was cold and snow, Harold would be warm.

John convinced Harold to pack some forage on top of the wagon under waterproof canvas, and the storage for oats was increased. They had a rousing argument about the need for a second bed, but John had sworn to chop it to bits if Harold installed it. He liked sleeping under the stars. Harold retaliated by having his bedroll doubled in thickness. John glared but allowed it.

Winter was giving way to Spring, and John hoped they’d leave soon. Lord Ashkevron was getting increasingly bold in his desire to see John put on a demonstration of his skills with a knife. John had no desire to do that. Harold had told his uncle to stop asking, but winter was boring or so the argument went.

John’s heart still ached from the broken Companion bond, but at least he was over the headaches. Berren had said that the wound from a broken bond took time to heal, unless they could find a Mindhealer. John wasn’t wasting energy on a fruitless journey. Harold had fussed, but he’d agreed it wasn’t prudent in winter.

The snow was almost gone when Harold proclaimed that they were leaving before he strangled half his family and let John shoot the other half full of arrows. Berren howled his approval, and John packed before Harold changed his mind. If they got stuck in a Spring snowstorm, he was fine with it.

Betsy seemed eager to be gone, and Fireball let out a neigh that was probably heard in the next village. Harold laughed, Berren jumped to the top of the wagon, and Fireball was sure he was leading a parade as most of the family came to see them off. John’s face was red until they were a good distance down the road.

“Let’s winter somewhere else next year!” John yelled.

“I agree!” Harold shouted, but he was smiling. “Do the mares in back think they’re pushing?”

John laughed, actually laughed, and Fireball pranced sideways down the road. Far up in the sky, a hawk turned on the wind and flew above them, screaming out its joy as it led the way.

Where months ago John had faded into the background of faceless toughs, now he stood out like a popinjay in his traditional Shin’a’in clothes. Children swarmed around him, demanding answers to why he was dressed that way, and why his horses didn’t need bits, and why, why, why. John found he no longer had time to brood. The men of the village wanted his opinion on their horses, the stablemen wanted to buy his horses – not going to happen – and any injured horse was brought to him to heal. That, he was happy to do, and he made Berren help.

John was almost as busy as Harold. The weather stayed good with the snow melting, and John slept up on the roof under the stars, ignoring Harold’s sighs. Berren stayed in the wagon with Harold, but even with that extra warmth, John insisted on putting coals in the brazier. Harold’s leg was doing better, and John wanted to keep it that way.

Fireball had settled down tremendously after he realized that he wasn’t returning to his stall at Forst Reach. He wanted to see the world, and John admired the spirit in him. He gleamed under the sun, and he learned everything John taught him, even some of the fighting techniques normally reserved for battlemares.

Harold proclaimed often how terrified he was of Fireball, but John had seen him slipping the gelding candy on several occasions. And the gelding stood like a stone when Harold was near, while his hooves felt free to stomp John’s toes whenever possible.

Berren was a good travel companion, hunting frequently and contributing to the stew pot. John made sure to slip him big cow bones whenever he could get hold of them. It kept him happy. He would often circle the village of wherever they found themselves, searching out people who were sick. He’d heal them, sometimes without them even aware of it. John had been worried people would be scared of the kyree but he had a gentle way about him, and everyone loved him.

They were a team, and that was why it came as a surprise when Harold tossed John a bag of coin from across the fire. They’d made camp because Harold hated traveling at night. The night was chilly, Spring threatening to slide back into Winter with clouds overhead. John caught the bag, opened it up to see some mixed silver and copper, and tucked it away in his shirt, not understanding.

“Harold, you don’t have to give me coin.” John would find someone who needed it more than him. “Several men have paid me a copper or two for helping with their horses. And I had money when you picked me up.” He frowned, thinking frantically. Maybe Harold thought John was nothing more a hired man and liked it that way.

Harold didn’t raise his eyes from the fire. “It’s only fair that we share the coin. We’re partners.”

“Do you want a portion from what I earn?” John had a feeling this would become an argument soon, but he was relieved that Harold claimed him as a partner. “You pay for all the food I eat. Isn’t that enough?”

“You pay for fodder and sweet feed for the horses!” Harold’s eyes were up now and flashing even by firelight. “This isn’t how it was supposed to be!”

John raised his eyebrows. “Harold, do you want to pay for everything?” He spread his hands, a little confused by all this, trying to understand.

Harold put his hand on Berren’s neck, and John could tell they were speaking. John shut his eyes and visualized the lifebond, knowing it was there because his Goddess had told him. Snapping open his eyes, he moved around the fire and took Harold by the hand.

Looking up at him, Harold’s eyes were wide behind his glasses. “I’m sorry. Berren says--.”

“The lifebond between us is upsetting you,” John finished for him. “I know about it, Harold.”

“Oh.” Harold pulled his hand away, got to his feet, nearly fell, and used Berren to stay upright. He got away from John, and John knew better than to grab at him. “You couldn’t want that with me, John shena Tale’sedrin. You loved King Jesse. I’m… nobody, just a cripple.”

“Jesse would’ve liked you.” John eased to his feet but stayed back. He didn’t want to spook him.

“John,” Harold seemed to take a deep breath. “You should rip--.”

“Stop, Harold.” John turned his back on him, refusing to have this conversation. “Go to bed. This will look different tomorrow.”

And the Goddess must’ve been laughing because She chose that moment to pelt rain down on them. The sky opened and lightning cracked. Harold began to hurry, getting his chair, and John rescued coals for the brazier. The horses would be fine. John had put blankets on them earlier, since it was still chilly at night with Spring cold.

Harold saved the supplies, and John made sure of the fodder on top of the wagon, securing it with rope. “John! Get in here!”

John had no intention of ever doing that, but the wind picked up, and the rain was ice cold, edging towards sleet, and he gave up. He secured the door behind him and started to drip on the floor of the wagon. Harold tossed him a towel, and Berren had one of his own.

“Stubborn Shin’a’in!” Harold was cross now. “Did you think to sleep under the wagon?”

“Yes.” John just went with the truth. “There’s brigands and bears, and I have to keep you safe.”

Berren flopped to floor, shaking his head and getting Harold wet again. Harold threw the towel on him. “Stop using that as an excuse to avoid me. Just tell me straight out that you’re not interested, even though we’ve managed some sort of lifebond. I’m strong enough to take it.”

Even by lamplight, John saw the ache in Harold’s eyes. “Harold, I’m too heartsore, right now, but I don’t want to do anything to hurt you.”

“Oh.” Harold ducked away. “I’m sorry. I’m, just, confused by all this.” He pulled his bed down, tugging at John’s bedroll. John took it from him and tossed it by the door. Harold was right there, and John managed to edge a little closer until they were almost touching. One of them leaned, and John had to wrap his arms around him, hold him. Harold took a breath like a sob. “Yes, I know we’re idiots, Berren. Thank you.”

“He’s a real help around here.” John felt like his skin was on fire, even though he wasn’t touching anything but Harold’s clothes. “Lifebonds can be tetchy. They like people to acknowledge them. That horrible feeling in your gut? That was the lifebond vibrating in distress.”

“How do you know all this?” Harold’s voice had a touch of wonder in it.

“Not just a savage.” John felt Harold’s leg complain, so he had him sit on the bed and sank down on the floor in front of him. He pulled Harold’s leg into his lap and began rubbing it like he’d seen Arthur do. “If you start to feel upset, a simple touch can usually make the bond settle down.

“It’s a lifebond, but we don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do, except always be near enough to yell at each other for part of the day.”

“Well, there’s that.” Harold groaned softly, stretching his foot out, pressing it against John’s stomach. “I honestly do feel like I should apologize to you.”

“For giving me a reason to live?” John couldn’t look up at him. “The Star-Eyed One told me that one of my Gifts is forming bonds. You, maybe unfortunately, are my latest victim.”

“Yes, you’re awful,” Harold drawled. He put his hand on John’s shoulder. “I’m sorry you’re heartsore. I won’t push this on you.”

John didn’t know what to say in return. Mostly, he was embarrassed. He reached back, grabbed the towel, and scrubbed his hair again, glad to hide his face. Berren shouldered past him and claimed a spot on the bed, and Harold started cleaning up. John got his bedroll straightened out and didn’t complain about the extra blanket Harold pressed on him. Taking off his boots, he blew out the lamp and listened to the rain on the wagon roof.

When it stopped, he went out to check the horses. Their blankets were waterproof, compliments of Lord Ashkevron, but Fireball liked to pull his off with his teeth. John was glad to see them all fine, with good warmth, but he took the time to brush some of the wet off their legs. The clouds had cleared off, and the night was cold, but the stars were shining, and he scooted on top of the wagon to sit.

Everything had been so easy with Jesse, but Harold was full of questions and problems to be solved. John suspected he was one of those problems. A lifebond didn’t mean two people never argued, and he’d seen a lifebonded couple who could barely stand the other.

Harold didn’t seem against the idea though, just stunned, even worried that John couldn’t return the offered affection. The wind picked up, and John slid down to the door and onto his bedroll. He kissed his ring and listened to Harold breathe until he fell asleep.

Someone brushed up against John’s shields, and he froze in the saddle. Usually, he drove in the afternoon, but today Fireball had been restless. Fireball tossed his head, half-rearing, and John held his breath.

:Help? Can you help?:

A mindvoice that John didn’t know jolted him to action. “Harold, I need to ride ahead. Berren, stay with him!”

“John?” Harold pulled Betsy to a quick stop.

But John tucked his heels into Fireball’s sides, and he was living up to his name. They tore down the road, and John was fairly sure he had a line on the cry for help.

:The village stable!: That was Berren, so he must’ve heard the cry as well. Fireball found a faster speed, and John hoped he had enough weapons on him. They ripped into the village, and he heard a whinny full of despair come from the stable.

“Goddess, I might need some help here,” John muttered, throwing himself from the saddle and trusting Fireball to stay close. He pushed someone aside and fell to his knees at the Companion’s side, her belly big with foal. He met the eyes of a terrified Herald. “It’s turned?”

“She’s not sure!” the Herald wailed. “It’s too early!”

“Settle down.” John took him by the shoulder and squeezed. “You have to stay calm.” He took off his jacket, shirts, and apologized to the Companion, “I’m sorry. This isn’t going to feel comfortable at all.”

“Help her!”

The stableman pounded up. “Oh, a Shin’a’in, thank Havens! Goose grease!”

John let him coat his arm with it and then he was going by feel, praying to his Goddess. The tiny hoof he found moved, and he grinned. “The foal’s alive.” He met the blue eyes of the Companion. “Don’t push.”

:Help him!:

The long legs were folded, but John found the soft nose, shocked when the foal latched on to his fingers. This baby wanted to live, and John curled his thumb around his jaw and began to gently pull. He wasn’t backwards as much as turned too far to the side. Fluid gushed around John’s arm, and it was now or never.

Legs began to kick and then straighten, and John shouted, “Push!”

The Companion bellowed, pushing with all her might. Her Herald fainted, and Berren was suddenly there, pressing his body into her extended belly. There was another push/pull and then it all happened in a rush. John fell backwards as his arms filled with a wet foal, who blinked up at him with very blue eyes.

:You are not my Chosen, but I like you!:

“Thanks, little one.” John had no lack of help getting him wiped down, nostrils cleaned out, and umbilical cord cut. He turned his attention back to the Companion, helped her pass the afterbirth and get her legs underneath her so she could surge up. The foal immediately butted his head in for his first drink of milk, wobbling on his legs, and John couldn’t stop his laugh at the little fellow’s enthusiasm.

“Oh, thank Havens,” the Herald said, before passing out again. John sat down on a bale of hay and let his filthy arms dangle, just watching them. It wasn’t the first time he’d helped a Companion give birth, but it was his first time to turn a foal.

“John?”

“He’s okay.” John smiled up at Harold. “Could you arrange for me to have a bath?”

“And your clothes need to be burned.” Harold nodded, but he was holding John’s shirts and jacket. “Berren says the mother will be fine, no damage.”

“Good.” John grinned again when Berren started licking the Herald’s face. The young man sputtered and sat up. The stableman pulled him to his feet.

“He’s okay?” The Herald stumbled over and sank down to his knees to stare at the foal. The colt turned and nuzzled him before going back to his milk. “I’m still wobbly cobbly.”

“They’re fine, and the kyree is a Healer, so no more passing out.” John got to his feet and made sure they were making a hot mash for the Companion. “He’s small. Let them rest a few days. Your mare will let you know when they can leave. You’ll have to carry him most of the way across your saddle.”

“Yes, sir.” The Herald got up and hugged his Companion around the neck. “Fool mare. No more dalliances with Rolan!”

“That’s always good advice.” John smiled at Harold, who was just getting back from the inn. “Can you help me in the bath?”

“Of course.” Harold led the way, but John checked that Fireball had found his way to a stall, and that Betsy was in the shade. Villagers crowded around, babbling, and John couldn’t seem to tuck his smile away.

Morning came early, and John yawned as he climbed down off the wagon and headed for the stable. The Companion swung her head to look at him, and her Herald and her little foal were curled into her side, sound asleep with blankets all around.

“Feeling okay?” John whispered.

She nodded, and he went to get his horses ready to leave. The mares just needed a brushing. He’d work with them later. Fireball was always eager, and Betsy just wanted food, and lots of it. After John fed her, he felt a feather touch on his leg. Carefully, he turned and knelt to gently stroke the tiny foal. His white hair felt soft like clouds under John’s fingers, and John knew the itchy spots to make him happy.

“You’re a bit of nothing,” John said, rough in his voice as the foal leaned into him.

:Mama says I’ll grow big.: The little guy tossed his head, arching his neck, and he must’ve known how cute he was. :My name is Jayse!:

“Of course, it is.” John couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. The Goddess had been involved in this, teaching him that life goes on, even if his heart wasn’t ready. “You take care of your Chosen, Jayse.”

The foal pranced on his tiny silver hooves and bounced a little bit away to run back to him. :I’ll tell Papa you said hello.: And he dashed back to his mother.

John hoped that went well for the little guy. Usually, he had the horses ready by the time Harold stepped out of the wagon. Today, he took a long stretch and went to get them some hot breakfast from the inn. Harold would like some tea, as well, and maybe there’d be a few bones for Berren.

Chapter Text

“We need to decide if we’re going further south today, or start our way towards Haven,” Harold said before taking a sip of his tea. He unrolled a map, and they looked at it together.

“We’re in Tindale,” John mused, calculating distance and Betsy’s usual distance per day. “I picked you up in Haven the first week of Fall. Were you on schedule?”

“Excuse me, sir?” Harold eyed him over his glasses. “You were lost. I found you.” He sniffed at John’s quick grin. “And, yes, more or less.” He shrugged at John’s arched eyebrow. “More less than more.”

“We could winter with Arthur this year,” John suggested, not sure what Harold would say to that.

“How will you steal horses from my uncle?” Harold asked, making a very good point.

“I could gallop up, put a few arrows in people, steal a few, and dash away. Fireball would love it.” John loved watching Harold’s face go through a myriad of emotions, ending in amusement.

“As long as that cousin of mine gets one in the arse,” Harold muttered.

John knew which cousin Harold meant and nodded in agreement. Berren came out from behind the bar with a huge bone in his mouth. He settled under the table and started chewing. John hid a smile behind his hand. Harold sighed like he always did, knowing that bone would turn up in his bed later.

“If we go south, once we swing north, we could winter in Haven,” Harold said, real doubt in his voice. “I could teach a few students at the Compass Rose. You could--.”

“Throw apples at Rolan?” John wasn’t sure about that at all. “Pretend Shaw and I are friends?”

“I’m sure she’s a lovely lady.” Harold pushed some sausage and cheese at John. “You could be Chosen again. You deserve it.”

“No.” John spat out the word. He hated that idea. It’d kill him. “Fireball would be jealous.”

“That horse is odd. He let Berren ride him the other day.” Harold finished his tea. “But I see your point. You’d create division among the council, even if you didn’t mean to do it.” He sighed. “Let’s go north. Once we’re in Haven, I think we’ll know better what we want.”

John shrugged, fine with that decision, but he wasn’t staying in Haven long. “It’s warm tonight. Want to sleep on the roof with me?”

Harold absolutely blushed. John was fairly sure the red went all the way down to Harold’s toes. It also became apparent that Harold was struggling to find words. He swallowed hard. John licked his lower lip and flushed when he saw Harold was watching him stare.

“I’m going to go work with the mares before the sun goes down,” John said, not rushing but needing to move.

“I’ll clean up the wagon,” Harold muttered. John beat him out the door of the inn. The mares were coming along splendidly. Neither of them needed lead ropes any longer. They were sweet-tempered, graceful, and responsive. He rode them without saddle or bridle, and they never put a hoof wrong. If the Queen didn’t want them, he could sell them for their weight in silver.

Berren wandered over with his bone, sprawling by John’s feet. :I’m not a neuter.:

“I assumed that from the huge balls you managed to slap against my face the last time it rained, and I was sleeping on the floor of the wagon.” John knew Berren had done it on purpose.

The kyree made a sound suspiciously like laughter. :Just bed him. Please.:

For an answer, John picked up the bone and threw it on the roof of the inn. He brushed the mares and hid in the barn until his face was under control. He wasn’t ready for that, but he knew Harold was. Betsy demanded more sweet feed, and Fireball wanted candy. John gave in to both of them, making sure their hay racks were full.

He didn’t emerge from the barn until the sun was down, and he had no plans for retrieving his bedroll from the wagon. Berren had laid claim to the top of the wagon, and he lifted his lips off his teeth when John climbed up the side. John glared at him.

“Go inside.”

The low growl made it clear that Berren wasn’t doing that. Berren sat down directly in John’s path.

“Fine, you mangy cur.” John went inside the wagon, startling Harold, whose eyes seemed impossibly wide by lamplight. “Your kyree is trying to eat me.”

“He does seem a bit put out with you.” Harold was at his tiny desk, working on a compass with tools so small they’d get lost in John’s hands. “Berren, well, he didn’t fit in with his pack. For a kyree to be a Healer is a very rare thing. He refused to compete to be Alpha, and he admitted he was very tired of healing injuries from needless posturing.”

“So that’s why he’s in our little pack now.” John sank to the floor and started untying his boots. “I’d wondered a time or two. The histories always tell of neuters willing to bond with humans.”

“Any kyree can do it.” Harold shrugged, eyes on the watch. “Someday, maybe, he’ll find a mate, and we’ll have puppies riding in our wagon.”

John tried not to like the sound of that. He sighed, feeling guilty and deciding to do something about it. Boots untied; he went to get Betsy from the barn. A big jump from her back, and he scrambled across the roof to retrieve the stupid bone, tossing it up to Berren as he went back in the wagon.

“Thank you.” Harold smiled when John came through the door with a huff. “I’m sure he’ll reconsider pissing on your sheepskin saddle now.”

“I really don’t want to start a pissing war with Berren.” John wouldn’t touch Berren’s bones again. He dropped back down to the floor and finished taking his boots off, tossing them by the door.

“You really don’t.” Harold lofted something to him, and John caught it automatically. It was a piece of candy. The kind he gave the horses for a job well done. He supposed he’d earned it, and he popped it in his mouth, enjoying the molasses. It was good. Harold smiled. “It’s funny. We’ve traveled together for nearly a year, but there’s still so much we don’t know about each other.”

“That’s the trap of a lifebond.” John didn’t have a list of questions, but he suspected that Harold did. “You feel comfortable, safe, and then you find out your lifebonded has a wife.”

Harold pulled the lamp a bit closer, adjusting his glasses and bending to his work. “I don’t have a wife.”

“I’m glad.” John was, but he hadn’t been worried about it. “I thought if you did, she’d show up at Forst Reach and hit the back of your head with a skillet for being damn late!”

Hands still for a moment, Harold didn’t look at him. “I was betrothed, but I refused to saddle her with a cripple for the rest of her life.”

“Bet she was mad.” John knew that any Ashkevron was considered a catch. He’d never seen Harold at Court, but that didn’t mean much. John hadn’t paid attention to anyone but Jesse.

“She receives a yearly stipend from my portion of the estate for her trouble.” Harold’s tone was flat, and John wondered if he’d loved her. Harold shrugged, as if the wound was old and healed. “She’s a master painter, popular in Haven.”

“I don’t have a wife either,” John said, just to see Harold’s incredulous look. “Oh, did you guess?”

“I did.” Harold started putting all his fiddly tools away. He tucked the compass in a drawer. “A number of people expressed concern to me at Forst Reach that my hired man was… both deaf and mute.”

It was easy to grin at him. “I was sure you were going to say shaych.”

Harold took off his glasses and stowed them away. “No one mentioned that. I reassured them that you were simply mean as a wyrsa and to keep a good distance from you at all times.”

“You know me so well.” John leaned back on his arms and stretched out his legs. He was aware that he took up a lot of room. “I’m only half Shin’a’in. My father, goat that he was, impregnated my mother at a Horse Fair before running off. She died giving birth to me. No family wanted me, so I petitioned to join Tale’sedrin when I was three.”

It was clear that Harold was struggling to understand. John tried to explain, “Tale’sedrin were almost completely wiped out by bandits. Every year they open their tribe to orphans. If you can prove you have value to the tribe, they’ll adopt you.”

“At three?” Harold’s face scrunched up in disbelief.

“I could ride, even if I couldn’t get on by myself quite yet, and I was already an expert with a sling and a bow. Well, those were the only two weapons I had.” John had never spoken of this, but the words didn’t hurt, not now.

There was a steady pulse of support coming from Harold. It was very different from what he’d John had with Jesse, not better or worse. “At the end of the day, I went home to Tale’sedrin. Now, I had a family, a tribe, and life was good. When I was thirteen, I traveled with them to the Horse Fair. It was in Sweetsprings that year. Rolan Chose me there, and the tribe made the decision that it would be allowed.”

“I had no idea.” Harold just stared at him, enthralled. “Were you upset? Sad?”

“Excited, mostly. I knew I was shaych, and I’d begun to hear whispers, early Mindspeech. My only choice was to be a shaman in the tribe, and I didn’t want that.” There was no way to really make Harold understand how a tribe wasn’t a family. How easy it was for him to not fit in because he was too many different things. “And Rolan is a magnificent stallion. He Chose me. I was pretty smug about that!”

Harold smiled. “I can imagine. Your Goddess must have approved.”

John rummaged in a cabinet and came up with some wine. Harold produced cups, and they drank. “When I spoke with her, She wasn’t happy with Rolan. I can tell you that.”

“I told myself I would stay out of it, but I’m not happy with him either.” Harold frowned. “I suppose like everyone I have grand notions of the bond between a Herald and a Companion.”

First, John drank. “And you’d be right. Jesse and his companion, Joss, shared everything, every thought, every emotion. I could almost touch the bond between them. Jesse was a much better King because he had Joss to support him.” He couldn’t ruin Harold’s view of Heralds. “Rolan’s bond is different. Ironic that it’s so esteemed when it’s so much less… personal than any Companion’s bond.” He had to stop.

“My loyalties lie with you.” Harold surprised him. “But I suppose I won’t give him the cold shoulder if we see him at Court.” He nodded to emphasize. “Rumor is the Queen’s Own is a woman, but no one knows her name. Rolan Chose a full Herald.”

“That’ll be Sameen Shaw, then.” John drank to her good health. “She’ll do very well.” He also thought she’d make a good match with Rolan. Shaw didn’t like emotions. It was time to talk about something else, and John was curious about a few things. “Tell me about your machine.”

Harold emptied his cup and held it out for a refill. He drank that down before taking a deep breath. “My brother, Nathan, and I, well, neither of us were fond of horses, and when you consider where we were raised, it was unfortunate. We both went to the Blues. Nathan received his Master of Engineering two years before I went.

“I came back from Haven determined to do something, change Valdemar forever.” Harold drank some more wine. John sent him a pulse of support. Harold nodded. “The build went easily. I knew exactly how to mechanize it, but it took years to build all the parts. Nathan married. You met his son, Will, I believe. The hardest part was finding a fuel to drive it, but Nathan figured out that grease from the kitchen would work.”

He took another deep breath. “I still don’t know what went wrong. We’d used a carriage for the base, of course, but I made all the mechanical parts myself. We started it. It began to move exactly as we’d calculated, and… it all went to hell.” Harold hung his head. “When I woke up, Nathan was dead, and our Healer had nearly died putting my neck back together. I was lucky to be alive, even crippled, or so they said.”

“You didn’t feel lucky.” John finished his own wine. He straightened his bedroll and took Harold’s low-cut boots off. It was easy to stretch out his hand. Harold’s eyes were full of disbelief, but he didn’t turn John down. John snuffed out the lamplight and very carefully pulled Harold until they were nestled together. “Leg?”

“No worse than usual.” Harold took several deep breaths. His head was tucked into John’s shoulder, and John held him loosely. After a few moments, their breath became one, and John felt him relax.

“Someone sabotaged it.” John had to say it. “You know it was perfect.”

Harold flinched. “I know.”

It felt like the bond between them decided in that instant to take their breath away. It swept them up, gave John a good shake, and he could feel it thicken, grow in size. Harold gave out a low groan, and John felt him find satisfaction. John curled around him, careful not to hurt him. He wondered if he was the only one that felt their lifebond hum as if it were pleased.

:No, you aren’t.: Berren’s sarcasm came through with no trouble.

“Hush, mangy dog.” John kissed Harold’s forehead, feeling him fall asleep. Tomorrow would be full of blushes and complaints, but it could wait.

When he woke, long before the dawn, he scooped Harold right up off the floor and put him to bed, covering him with a blanket and making sure he was still asleep before going to start his day with the horses.

He ignored the laughing face of Berren.

Kannaboro was ahead of them, and John could tell that today was going to be hot. Weeks more of summer, and now it was going to get miserable. The morning coolness burned off quickly, and Harold had his sun shade up on the wagon. By the time the sun was nearing midday, the horses were miserable. Even Berren’s tongue was dragging.

“Harold! I’m going to find some shade!” John took Fireball ahead until there was an obvious pull off with big trees and a small creek. Berren was sprawled in it when John turned back to get his mares. They were happy to stretch their legs, trotting after him, and he watered them by taking them right in the creek.

Betsy let out a hearty whinny when the wagon stopped. She wanted water, as well. John dismounted and went to her, taking her out of the traces to get a good rest. He could hear Harold rummaging in the wagon.

“Ho, the camp!”

John pulled a knife from his boot, but he put it away when he saw it was a Herald on his Companion. “Harold! There’s a Herald!” And he finished with all his horses before going to the best part of the shade where Harold had his chair near a small folding table laden with food.

“Herald John, good to see you!” They shook hands.

“Not a Herald any longer.” John had known Herald Soren and his Companion, Tyrel, for years, but they’d never been friends. His Gift was Fetching, and he had a reputation for liking women and ale a bit too much. John also knew him as a great gossip. “Did you come for nuncheon?”

“I never turn down food.” Soren pulled the tack off his Companion before coming over to sprawl in the grass. “This heat! Are you headed for Haven?”

“Yes.” John yanked off his shirt and sat on it, enjoying the coolness of the shade on his skin. He lazily gave a tug on their lifebond, and Harold raised his eyebrows. “Master Harold, Herald Soren, if you hadn’t gotten that far.”

“Everyone on the circuit knows Master Harold.” Soren swiped his hand through his hair. “You want Tyrel to watch your horses?”

“They’re fine.” John trusted they wouldn’t wander. He poured Soren and Harold some cider before getting his own. “I know you well enough, Soren. What do you need?”

Soren hesitated and then finished making a rough sandwich. “Bandits. They’ve been pestering Kannaboro. I heard you might be in the area.” He shrugged. “You’re the best, everyone knows that.”

Harold gave John a sharp look. “Best at what? Exactly?” He had a bit of cheese, but John could tell he wasn’t hungry, probably the heat.

“Fighting. Weapons.” Soren looked back and forth at them. “You didn’t tell him?”

“It never came up,” John growled, wishing Soren was less of a gossip. “How many bandits?”

“Villagers put them between five and ten men. They hit the travelers on the road coming out.” Soren kept on eating, tossing a bit of bread to his Companion. “I haven’t been able to scare them up, so I left to get help from the Guard.”

“I suppose no one there was willing to help you.” Harold wasn’t happy. Even without the bond, John would’ve known that. Harold got to his feet and limped to the wagon, going inside.

“Still a bit of a bastard that Master Harold.” Soren helped himself to more water. “They’ll hit you when you leave, if you keep on.”

John nodded, not liking Soren’s attitude. This type of thing was no longer John’s responsibility, but he could see that Soren expected him to help. He hesitated, but he couldn’t step aside. “I can handle them. If you’re close, they’ll hide.”

“It’s the damn uniform.”

“And the big, white Companion.” John wasn’t doing this with Soren. The Herald would just get in the way, and John would worry about stray arrows. “When you get to the Guard station, send them this way. They can clean up my mess.”

“Will do.” Soren got to his feet, stuffed a few things in his pouch, and grinned. “Thanks, Herald John.” He had his tack on Tyrel quickly, and they were gone down the road.

John didn’t wave goodbye. He ate his lunch and poured some water on his head, not caring that his trews got wet. Fireball wandered over, and John fed him some bread, greedy horse. It wasn’t too long, and Harold joined him, after giving Fireball a piece of candy.

“What is your Gift, John?” Harold didn’t beat around the bushes, clearly emphasizing the word.

“I can kill a man with most anything.” John didn’t want to discuss it, but he supposed they should. “Plate, fork, anything in my hand is a deadly weapon.”

“That’s why you don’t practice.” Harold nodded as if a puzzle was complete. “I’d wondered.”

“Herald Soren’s an arse, but he did us a good turn warning us.” John pressed some food on Harold, watching him eat. Berren trotted up, licking his chops and throwing himself down by their feet. Harold gave him a stroke on the head. John tossed him some meat. “You missed the fun, Berren.”

“He didn’t want the Herald to see him.” Harold poured some water on his handkerchief and patted his face. “I thought your Gift was Mindspeech.”

“I have that, as well.” John had hoped they were done talking about it. “Secondary is all, not very strong.”

“Berren has said that you’re more powerful than most.” Harold leaned back and shut his eyes. “I suppose Rolan said differently.”

“He said it was minor, at best. I couldn’t get him to hear my thoughts, and he’s the most powerful Mindspeaker in Valdemar.” John got Berren his own bucket of water to slurp. “It was damn annoying, but King Jesse made up the lack with his Gift of Mindspeech.”

:Your shields are the why. I couldn’t hear you after you put them up. They are very strong. You allow thoughts inside, but you don’t allow anything of yourself out, not emotions or thoughts.:

Dropping his shields, John looked at him. :You can hear this, mangy mutt?:

:Of course, you idiot. You project your thoughts and emotions everywhere when your shields are down. It’s very chaotic. My old pack was searching for you, just to teach you to shield when the creature attacked. You were upsetting all the Gifted ones up north. Yours is not a minor Gift, unusual for its raw power, but once you put up your shields, nothing of yourself escapes.:

“Harold, I’m going to put an arrow in Rolan’s arse. I’ll be back before nightfall.” John put his shields up tight, embarrassed. He remembered Rolan teaching him about shields even before they’d reached the Collegium. He must’ve been projecting everywhere, so Rolan had acted. John had never heard of someone being unable to send their thoughts past their own shields. “Sheka.”

“Te’sorthene,” Harold said with a respectable accent, “Fireball isn’t that fast, and I’ll need your help with those bandits.”

John barked a laugh. His suspicion that the Goddess had tamed Fireball to Her hand wasn’t important. “Harold, a man doesn’t like learning things about himself at this age.”

“True words, John shena Tale’sedrin.”

The hottest part of the day lazed away, and while John didn’t nap, he did doze a bit. Berren was on guard, and Fireball could be counted on to neigh if he caught whiff of another horse. John kept an eye on Harold because it seemed as if an argument was brewing inside him.

“Let’s spend the night here,” John suggested. He was sprawled on Betsy’s back, having gone over to get her ready and deciding he’d rather not. “We can leave early.”

Harold ambled over to him. “Why?”

The question was combative, and John sat up, pulled his legs, and balanced on her rump. She stood like a stone, and he looked down at him. Harold rubbed his forehead. “John, please.”

Berren came running towards them, and John could see the mischief in his eyes. At the moment the kyree jumped for him, John dropped and slid all the way under Betsy, hanging there.

“Berren!” Harold sighed. “This is not a circus!”

“Could be.” John put his feet on the ground and found a piece of candy for Betsy. Fireball neighed his jealousy, and John laughed. “I’m wondering if Herald Soren stirred those bandits up, and we could be driving into more trouble than I can handle.”

Harold went to his chair and sat down. He didn’t look happy. John trailed over to him and sat at his feet. “Need me to rub your leg?”

“No.” Harold glared at him. He waved his hand. “Could you, please, put on a shirt?”

The lifebond pulsed between them, and John raised his eyebrows. “It’s hot!”

“I can’t think with you… all… just, please.” Harold covered his eyes with his hands.

John leaned back on his elbows. They hadn’t touched since the first night the lifebond had wrapped them together. Harold hadn’t mentioned it, and John hadn’t known what to say. Berren galloped over to them and shook. He’d been in the creek. Harold let out a startled noise, and John grinned, slapping at Berren’s butt.

That was a mistake as Berren bore him to the ground, leaving muddy prints on John’s chest. John surged up and ran to the creek. Harold’s complaints followed them there, and it wasn’t until Berren caught a fish that they declared a truce.

The fish went in the pot after John gutted it, and Berren ate the head whole. Harold produced some root vegetables and an onion that John chopped and added to the mix. A few seasonings, and John sent Berren back for more fish.

“There’s soap in the wagon, John!” Harold still wasn’t looking at him.

John supposed he was a muddy, fishy mess, but he waited until after he’d gutted two more fish before getting the soap. He stripped in the creek, washing his trews and then his body. The sun glinted over his ring, and he gave it a kiss.

The lifebond between them gave a painful lurch, and John went to hold Harold and soothe him before he even considered that he was wet and naked.

“Shin’a’in savage,” Harold whispered, not quite able to put his bare hands on John. John kissed him on the side of the head and held him, not turning him loose until the bond had settled, not caring that Harold’s face was bright red. Harold looked up at him with a mixture of horror and resignation. “Anyone could ride by!”

“Just tell them I’m simple-minded.” John thought it was close to the truth. He went to finish his clothes, hanging them on the wagon to dry. Harold’s eyes followed him. The lifebond practically pulled them together, and Harold was right on John’s heels when he went in the wagon to get some clean clothes.

John tugged the bed down, tossed his bedroll aside, and Harold was on top of him, fumbling with his clothes. They managed to get some of Harold’s skin on John’s before they both shook their way to completion. John hadn’t done that with anyone in years, and he gasped for air, feeling as if he’d been punched.

“Oh, John,” Harold whispered, curling down on him, hands lazily stroking him. “You need another bath.”

Laughing, John kissed him full on the mouth. “We have time, I think. You could wash my back.”

“Not in that cold creek!” Harold pushed at him, and this time, John took his time making him shake apart. He fell asleep gloating about it.

:I’m eating your portion of the fish stew.:

John had his trews on by the time he cleared the door. Harold handed him a shirt, and John slid it on quick so he could get a bowl. “Back off, fur face.”

“We need a plan.” Harold handed him some bread with cheese toasted on it. “Berren went on a run today and discovered that there is no encampment of brigands outside, or anywhere near, the village.”

Munching, John waited for the rest of it.

“He believes the villagers themselves are organizing to attack travelers.” Harold shook his head, clearly disgusted. “Last year, they were struggling with livestock losses. As you well know, the lambing season was terrible.”

“Someone discovered an easier way to make money.” John had seen it before over the years. It was never an easy situation to resolve. “The Crown frowns on Heralds or the Guard wiping out an entire village.” He thought about it while he finished his first portion of the stew. “I could go through alone.”

“You’d kill a sizeable portion of the able-bodied men in the village.” Harold took John’s bowl and refilled it. “We need to remove the ringleader and help them find another revenue source.”

“We could be there all season.” John did want to get to Haven at some point. “Berren could lame their horses.”

“Let’s keep that as a last resort.” Harold patted Berren on the head. “He’s really very kind.”

“Right.” John ate instead of grinning. Berren rolled to his back and snorted. Harold smiled down at him. John scooped up another cheese toast to chew. The sun was almost down, and he could tell by Fireball’s stomping hoof that he was ready for his sweet feed. “Does Berren have a good nose for who is doing the thieving?”

“He says he does. He’ll point them out.” Harold gave him a belly scratch. John refused to be jealous, so he went to take care of the horses. The weather seemed like it would hold against rain tonight. Fireball got his portion first, because otherwise all hell broke loose. He also received some crust.

Horses content, John cleaned off in a bucket by the wagon before going back to the fire. Harold was finally having some stew of his own. He was never a big eater, even choosy. John put another log on the fire.

“Let’s go in hard, demand answers and threaten them.” John thought it could work. “Then we’ll make a show of you solving their problem, whatever it is. If I have to, I’ll kill a couple to get their attention.”

“You’re remarkably bloodthirsty for a Herald.” But Harold was nodding. “They’re not hardened brigands. They’re desperate farmers.”

“If you can’t solve their problem, we’ll wait for the Guard.” John wasn’t worried about that part of the plan. Harold could fix anything. John went to collect all his weapons and set them out on a piece of canvas to clean and sharpen each one. It was also bait, and sure enough, Harold couldn’t resist sitting with him.

John lit a few lanterns, got them each a cup of wine, and found dozens of ways to rest his hand on Harold. Harold cast him a look once or twice, and then settled in with all the arrows. “This one has a cracked shaft.”

“Toss it on the fire.” John knew Harold would rescue any usable parts. He focused on his axes and his knives, wishing he hadn’t left his long sword back in Haven. “Are you good with a sling?”

“Havens, no.” Harold got to his feet with a grunt and limped off to his wagon. He returned quick enough and handed John a small chest. “I did make this, and I’m quite good with it.”

Opening it carefully, John stared and then looked up. “Really?”

“You don’t fool me. You want six.” Harold huffed, which was funny.

Pulling out the small, hand-sized crossbow, John nodded. “Maybe ten, and hundreds of darts, some poisoned, please.” He checked the mechanism and of course, it was flawless. “What’s the range?”

“Works best from about you to Fireball, but I’ve brought down squirrels for the stew pot from a bit further.” Harold dug around in the chest and produced a bag of darts. He took it back, loaded it, and fired at a tree a good distance away. It flew straight and true.

“You really are my lifebonded.” John admired him so much right now. “Keep that close when we get to the village.”

“If you insist.” Harold handed it all to him. “And no to the poison.”

“Then aim for their eyes.” John stole a kiss while Harold was looking appalled. “Now, get to work on those arrows. I need to sharpen my sword.”

“Yes, you clearly neglect it.” But Harold moved so they could nudge each other. Berren joined them, and John had a moment where he couldn’t believe how much his life had changed. Harold elbowed him. “I’d prefer you don’t kill anyone.”

“You should really talk to Betsy. She’s bloodthirsty.” John would do his best, but nobody better even look at Harold, because he’d lost so much, and he couldn’t bear to lose him.

Chapter Text

There was no traffic on the road into the village, not a soul. They’d left their cozy campsite before the sun showed its face. John snuck away with Harold sleeping, and about an hour after the sun came up, Harold eased through the small door with a basket of breakfast.

“You should’ve shaken me.”

“You needed your sleep.” John gave his leg a gentle squeeze. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“Berren does as well.” Harold sighed. “Eat, and then get on Fireball. We’ll all feel better if you have weapons to hand.”

John dug in but didn’t overeat. He might have to run. Handing Harold the reins, he whistled for Fireball, who trotted up alongside so John could pop over onto him. They’d practiced. Harold raised his eyebrows.

“He’s uncanny,” Harold said.

“Careful, Harold. You’re going to start liking horses!” John settled his sword on his back. He had his axes through his belt on each hip. He had knives on his forearms, in his boots, and two forward on the saddle. A quiver of arrows hung from his saddle horn. “Hand me my bow.”

Harold handed it over to him. “I hope you don’t need all that.”

“Me too, Harold.” John approved when Berren moved to sit in the seat next to Harold. They’d be there before midday, but John planned to stop once to water the horses. They still hadn’t seen a single traveler when Harold pulled Betsy to a stop in a small clearing. The horses were eager for water and a small helping of oats.

John kept a sharp lookout. He didn’t like this. Harold delivered lunch foods, and John ate sparingly on his feet with Fireball close to hand.

:I’ll go ahead.:

“Be careful,” John said, tossing him some meat. Berren grinned, rubbed up against Harold, and faded away into the forest, an expert at finding cover. He had two jobs: protect Harold and scout out points of trouble. John trusted him to get both done.

Harold continued driving, even though John was against it. “You can’t be everywhere, John. I’ll drive. You and Fireball can handle any trouble.”

“I’d feel better if we had the Guard right behind us,” John grumbled, but he knew Harold was right. He could do the most good on Fireball.

The sun was directly overhead, the village was close, and Fireball kept tossing his head. John let him. They were being watched. John was sure they were going to need their backup plan.

Everyone knew Harold. They anticipated his arrival. It wasn’t uncommon for people to hurry out to meet them. The outskirts of the village were silent, not a child running or a dog barking. John had his bow in hand with an arrow nocked just in case.

Harold slowed Betsy. “Berren is upset.”

A flash of movement on a roof, and John snapped, “Get inside the wagon!”

They’d practiced, and Harold slammed the door behind him as an arrow thunked into it. John answered the arrow, not caring one bit that a body rolled off a roof. Betsy stopped, blowing, and John swung Fireball in a circle, waiting for their next move. They’d obviously decided that the riches to be gained in Harold’s wagon were worth the danger.

An arrow flew close as another man darted to a new position on the roof of the inn. The fellow was a bad shot, and John put an arrow in him. The scream was loud, and John dropped his shields so he could speak to Berren.

:They will come from the trees.:

:Protect Harold!: John turned Fireball on his heels and went towards them. An arrow pushed him back, and John lowered his head, firing three in quick fashion, glad to hear a scream. These weren’t villagers, not with those weapons and mismatched armor. These were hired mercenaries, and John peppered them with arrows until the survivors got smart and darted back to the trees to hide.

They must’ve only had the three archers because now John was faced with a collection of maces, swords, and axes. They weren’t organized, and they were too spread out to rush him all together. He could’ve wished there were less of them, but he used the trees to his advantage.

They might’ve pulled him from the saddle except that Fireball seemed to take great joy in kicking them. John slid off to flick a knife into a throat and let Fireball have at them, using his axe and sword to good use. He took a hit to the arm, ignored it, and countered, losing his sword when it was knocked away by the man behind him.

Roaring to his feet, down to his last two knives, he swung over Fireball’s rump and shoved the axe Harold had given him through a man’s throat at the same moment he threw a knife through a brigand’s eye.

Dead bodies around them, John scooped up his sword and waited. The last of the mercenaries gave him a hard look, decided they wanted no part of it, and turned to run. John let them go. There’d been far more than five of them!

:Berren, you watch for them coming back!:

:Harold needs help! I’m too far away!:

John mounted on the run. There were two men on the wagon when John pounded up, and they froze.

“You can get down, or I can kill you. Choose quickly.” John had his axe in one hand and his sword in the other.

“King’s Own?” The voice was familiar, and a quick glance showed the man was unarmed. Keeping his attention on the wagon, John waited until the men had gotten down and far back. He turned slightly.

“I’m not a Herald any longer.”

“I’m Carl Elias.” The portly, balding man had his hands in the air. “We met at court. I represent this area.”

“You’re doing a terrible job of it.” John flipped his axe and caught it, making sure they understood that he could kill them. “Did you hire those men?”

“They moved in when Herald Soren left.” Elias flushed, spreading his hands wide. “We made some mistakes!”

“Get everyone to the inn. No weapons.” John looked down on him from Fireball’s back. “You know what I can do.”

“I certainly do! Tell Master Harold I’m sorry.” Elias grabbed the two men and sent them off before backing up towards the inn. “Sorry!”

John snorted and got down to check Fireball for injuries. He’d taken a shallow slice on his rump but seemed ready to kick more heads. The mares were fine, and John knocked on the door in the code that it was safe.

“John?” Harold grabbed him by the arm. “You’re hurt.”

“It’s fine.” John took him to the inn, leaving his bow behind but keeping his sword in hand.

“There’s an arrow sticking out of you!” Harold’s eyes were very wide; his voice shrill.

“Later.” John wasn’t worried. It wasn’t deep. He yanked it out of his shoulder and handed it to Harold. The slice on his arm hurt worse. “Their headman, Elias, apologized for trying to kill us.”

“A good first step.” Harold let John shelter him, finding the inn full of villagers, some in a far worse state than John. “We need the Guard.”

Elias hurried up, wringing his hands. “They beat and robbed us all before settling into our cottages. The farmers hid, but we had nowhere to go.”

:They’re circling around!:

“I have to go.” John focused all his attention on Harold. “Stay in here. Lock the door. There are a few still alive. Don’t trust Elias. He’s lying.”

“Be careful, te’sorthene.” Harold looked scared, wringing his hands. “Let Fireball handle them.”

John grinned and went out the door. Trusting Harold to look after himself was hard. The mercenaries were trying to get back for their loot, coming in separately. Now, John had the luxury of time to knock them out. He took them one by one to an empty stall in the barn and tied them. The Guard would take them to the stockade.

That done, he fed his horses and made sure the wagon wasn’t visible from the main road. John made much of Fireball and cleaned the wound carefully. He’d check on him often tonight.

There were several other horses in the stable, and John made sure they all had fodder and clean water. The next task was unpleasant, but it was time to get his knives back. One by one he hauled the men to the road and dropped them, retrieving anything of use and tossing it on a piece of canvas he’d brought for that purpose.

One of the men had a silver pin, and John claimed it for Fireball’s bridle. Fireball had been extraordinary in his first battle, and John was sure now that the horse was Goddess-touched.

Cleaning his sword on a ripped shirt, he sheathed it on his back. His lifebond with Harold pulsed with worry and he sent wordless comfort. These men had lived by the sword and died by it, but it was still a waste. He yanked the axe Jesse had given him from a man’s chest and leaned against a tree to shut his eyes for just a moment.

:No Kal’enedral has ever done better.: The Star-Eyed One kept him from kneeling.

“They never surrender.”

:They never think one man can kill them all.: Her eyes comforted him. :You are as I made you, and I am proud.:

Words failed him, and he opened his eyes, not sure what was real. Blood trickled down his chest and arm, and he took a deep breath, pushing away from the tree. “Thank you, Goddess.” He picked up the dead bandit to take to the others.

No one came to help him, and he accepted this task as his own. When the last man hit the ground, he tossed a few more trinkets onto the canvas and began dragging it to the wagon. The pile of swords and maces needed to be put away from the villagers, so no one got hurt.

Wagon locked up, he went to find Harold, pulling open the inn door to find a scene of controlled chaos. Blood, bruises, and very few men were able to even walk. Children cried, and women wailed, and in the midst of it all Harold and Berren had gone to work, helping people, and unfortunately, it was his turn to be bandaged. He protested to Harold, “Everyone else first.”

:Sit, idiot. Eat and drink while Harold helps you. You must call the Guard, and you’ll feel like you were trampled when we are finished.:

John hadn’t ever used his Mindspeech like that, but he was willing to try with Berren’s guidance. He watched Elias cozen up to Harold as he bandaged John’s wounds. A terrified-looking serving girl brought him food and drink. He thanked her and watched Harold work. The cut was deep but not long, and the arrow had come out clean. Berren didn’t waste energy on it, so it was fine.

Berren trotted over and flopped down at John’s feet. :I will focus your call, but you will need to push like you have never done before.:

“Might be easier to ride after them,” John said, but he knew it was better he stayed here. He was the one of the few people here who could still swing a sword. Downing his ale, he moved to sit on the floor by the fireplace. It was out of the way. Berren put his head in John’s lap, and John gave him a stroke. “Thank you, fur face.”

:Cast your mind the direction of the Guard post. Do not allow your emotions to interfere. No shields, just an arrow of thought that you loose from your mind bow.:

Putting the problem in terms of a bow made John better understand. He blocked out his aching arm and the worry leaking from his lifebond with Harold and pointed his mind arrow in the direction he knew the Guard would be coming.

:Now!:

John released his call for help, searching and pushing, glad Berren was with him. He made two contacts almost simultaneously: Rolan and Tyrel. He threw all the information at them, feeling their shock and horror.

Berren yanked John back into his body, and he collapsed on top of him.

Warm was John’s first thought, and before anything made sense, he curled into it and let it soak through to his soul.

:Please don’t crush him, like you did me.: Berren’s mindvoice boomed in John’s mind.

John realized that meant he had no shields, and he took a long minute to put them up properly. The inside of his brain ached; he’d overused his Gifts, and he groaned as he kissed the back of Harold’s neck. Berren was breathing in John’s face, and John glared at him. “Go away.”

Berren rolled out his tongue and walked over John’s legs, digging in his claws. Harold laughed, and John had no energy to do anything about it. “My brain hurts.”

“I’ll get the Healer.” Harold eased away, fully dressed, but his hand lingered on John’s cheek. “You had an arrow stuck in you. Please stop being an idiot.”

“You pay me too well for that.” John kissed Harold’s wrist. “I thought Berren could cure this.”

“He’s got the same headache you do.” Harold tucked the blanket around him. That was when John noticed they were in a small bedroom, warm with the smell of food in the air. Harold must’ve seen his look because he said, “I had them bring you here to this cottage near the inn. No one was living in it. We can rest here.”

“My horses?” John looked for his boots even as his head pulsed in pain.

“Berren came from there. They’re fine, and Fireball is ready for round two.” Harold snorted. “I fed him. He wouldn’t let anyone else near him.”

“He’s a good horse.” John loved that Fireball trusted Harold. He shut his eyes against the ache, settling back down. “I’ll be up by noon.”

Harold chuckled, patting him gently. “Rest.”

When the Healer came in, John drank the potion eagerly, thanking her. The Healer put her hand very briefly on his arm and chest before scurrying from the room. John checked the wounds, seeing that they were half-healed. His head begged him to rest, so he did, shutting his eyes.

***

Hunger drove John awake, and he padded into the living area where a pot hung inside the fireplace before he considered anything else. There were bowls and spoons stacked on a small table, and he helped himself, desperately needing it.

When his stomach stopped yowling, he sent a pulse down the lifebond. His head still ached, but it was better, and he’d check his horses after he found his boots.

“I’ll get you a shirt. There are women in the village who would faint to see all that golden skin.” Harold and Berren came through the door together, and John made sure his bowl wasn’t close to Berren’s mouth. Harold put a basket down by him, and John got himself some bread and cheese without delay

“The Guard is sorting things out. Elias and a few of the other men will spend some time in the stockade, I’m afraid, but I believe they have learned their lesson.” Harold helped John put on a blue shirt, careful of the bandages. “Some hard decisions will have to be made come winter.” He shook his head. “Eat the vegetables, too.”

“Yes, Gran’ther.” John ate everything in the basket, ignoring Berren’s big eyes. He tossed the grass basket in the fire when he was finished, finally looking around the tidy, little cottage. It needed more furniture, but it was clean and cozy. The fireplace was a good one. “Did you buy this place?”

Harold blushed, and John grinned, unable to help himself. “You did! I guess we can winter here,” he joked, but he could see Harold was thinking about it. “Wait. No. Please. There’s no barn!”

Smiling, Harold pulled him to his feet. “You need to go see Fireball.”

“Let me get my boots.” John kissed him because he could, liking the idea of a big bed and a bit of privacy. Harold made a noise that promised more for later, and John was surprised when he stepped out into a midday sun. It was already warm, and he supposed he’d slept a day.

All of his horses whinnied when they saw him, lifting his spirits. He went slow, took his time, treating them like the family that they were. He’d be sorry to give up his mares, but they’d have a good home in the Queen’s stables.

“Herald John!” Soren yelled at him from across the yard.

John waved, giving Fireball one last pat. His rump was healing fine. “Herald Soren, I’m the official Shin’a’in Envoy to Valdemar, blessed by the Goddess. My bond with Rolan is gone. I’m no longer a Herald.” He put a hint of steel into his voice. “Envoy John is appropriate.”

Soren’s eyes blew wide. “I apologize.” He took a deep breath. “Envoy John, thank you for your service to Valdemar.”

“They tried to kill Master Harold.” John walked with him towards the inn. He only had the knives in his boots, and he seriously considered getting his sword. The wagon would need to be moved by the cottage, but he supposed it could wait. “That was a poor decision on their part.”

“It certainly was.” Soren’s head bobbed. “This group has been on the run from the Guard. They must’ve thought they’d fallen in the cream here.”

John could see that. He got the door but sent Soren in first. The inn was still a makeshift hospital, and it looked as more injured had arrived. John did a quick head count, saw that Berren was stretched out near a woman with bruises on her face, and went to get him some meat. The serving girl had been replaced by a member of the Guard.

“Sergeant, the kyree is a Healer. He’ll need slab of meat when he’s done with his patient.” John leaned into the words so the sergeant would know it was true.

“Yes, sir.” The sergeant nodded. “Is that red horse yours? He’s a rare treat!”

“That he is.” John grinned. He went back out to find the commander, seeing that Elias and Harold were deep in conversation again, and Harold better not be buying more cottages!

The day ended sooner than John had thought it would because the Healer, and Berren, refused to let him ride out on patrol. He did still have a headache, but he hadn’t mentioned it, so Berren had ratted him out to Harold.

“Thank you for moving the wagon near our little cottage. I sorted out all the bits you left me as a surprise.” Harold caught John by the arm and somehow managed to get him moving towards their cottage. They’d had a quick dinner at the inn earlier, and John supposed he had no excuse not to walk with him. “The coin went into the general fund, and I gave the blacksmith the weapons to use, or sell, as he saw fit.”

“Not a good sword among the lot.” John liked that Harold had hold of him. “I really wanted to make sure I got them all,” John muttered.

“You’re swaying ever so slightly. The commander told me to put you to bed.” Harold was gentle but insistent, getting his boots off and making sure he was comfortable.

John found the energy to take him by the wrist. “Don’t leave.”

“I need to clean up, but I’m staying in our cottage, and Berren is asleep by the fire.” Harold dropped a gentle kiss on John’s forehead. “We’re safe. Sleep.”

And John did.

Waking up with Harold in his arms was a surprise, but John liked it. His mind felt fuzzy, but there was no pain, and he made sure his shields were tight. He’d never dreamed he could use his Mindspeech like that, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to do it again.

Touching his mind to Rolan’s, even briefly, had… hurt. He’d never tell a soul that, but it had been like dragging his fingernail into a sword cut. He wasn’t angry, not any longer. He even understood why Rolan did it. He, just, wished it’d been different, and that was foolish.

“I’m sorry,” Harold whispered, eyes still shut. He somehow managed to tuck himself closer to John. “I’m not him.”

Guilt clamped down on John’s sore heart. “Stop. You’re mine.” And he kissed him. Harold sighed, but he was asleep. John held him and vowed to do better.

Chapter Text

Harold was gone when John woke up, but there was the smell of food in the air. When John felt a twang from the lifebond, he became concerned. Throwing on random clothes, not taking the time to bandage his arm, which was fine, he stormed from the cottage.

Berren wasn’t in sight, but a neigh from Fireball made John run towards the stable. A man with a scar on his face had Harold boxed into an empty stall. Harold’s eyes were wide, and John caught the hand with the knife, wrenching it away.

“Harold.” John shoved Scarface against the stall wall, keeping an arm under his chin and pushing.

“John!” Harold was out of breath. “He’s Elias’ man. We were just… talking.”

John tilted his head and met Scarface’s eyes. “You don’t need a knife to speak to Harold, not that you’re ever going to do that again. Am I clear?”

“Yeah,” Scarface wheezed. John dropped him, letting him breath. He rubbed his throat. “Elias can’t go to the stockade. We can’t survive without him!”

“Better find a way,” John growled, moving in close again, head lowered, ready to hurt him. “You and your little band of thieves nearly got everyone in this village killed! Elias knows that.”

“We were handling them!”

“Stop,” Harold said. “Go find Elias and tell him this won’t work.”

John grabbed him and shoved him out into the barn courtyard. “You heard the man. Go!” He didn’t take his eyes off him until he was out of sight. “And where is Berren?”

“Hunting,” Harold said, putting his hand on John’s arm. John could feel him shaking. Harold took a deep breath. “Thank you, not that I was worried.”

“Right.” John curled an arm around him, deciding to keep the knife. “No one in this village can be trusted. You need to be careful.”

Harold stayed close to John, and they went back to their cottage. John threw the knife hard enough to make it stick into the mantle over the fireplace. “Maybe we should leave. The Guard can handle this.”

“The people here need our help.” Harold started putting food on the table, pouring them each some spiced cider. “They need solutions, not more violence.”

“Anyone touches you, and I’ll show them violence,” John growled, sitting at the table like Harold wanted of him. “Sit by me. I can feel you trembling.”

After a short sigh, Harold sat by him, so close their thighs touched. It seemed to settle him, and John served them both some of the breakfast foods. “Eat.”

“John.” Harold managed to fuss at him by using his name against him. “You can’t beat up everyone.”

“Yes, I can.” John was sure of that. “He needs to go to the stockade with Elias, if he’s that much his man.” He’d speak to the Guard commander before the sun went down. “Stay with Berren or myself until the worst of them are gone.”

Harold rolled his eyes, but it was half-hearted. “He wouldn’t have hurt me.” He glanced under the table at John’s bare feet. “Do you need a new set of boots?”

“I was in a hurry, te'sorthene.” John nudged at him to eat. “I’m taking Fireball out for a run, once Berren gets back. He needs it.”

With a soft sigh, Harold leaned against him. “The commander assured me there were no more brigands.”

“I’ll feel better if I look.” John needed a run as well, but he wrapped his arm around Harold. They both ate, cleaning every scrap from the table, and John found he wasn’t in a hurry to go for a ride.

Harold tugged him up to stand on his bare feet. “Let me check your arm and that pesky hole where an arrow was.” And he led the way back to the small bedroom. John locked the door and followed after him.

For the second time that day, John woke in the bed without his lifebonded. He glared up at the ceiling and vowed to punch someone in their gob if Harold was in any type of inconvenience.

“That fierce face could scare even your lifebonded,” Harold said, coming back to the bed with a pitcher of what smelled like apple cider and two cups. He sat the drink down on the bedside table and made himself comfortable near John, who scrambled to sit up and put the pillows where they’d do the most good.

“I was thinking you were out getting into trouble.” John took his cup. “Thank you, lifebonded, you are too kind to this Shin’a’in savage.”

“I’m quite fond of him.” Harold looked at him through his lashes, putting on quite a show. “And he is my lifebonded, after all. I can’t throw him over for a lord of the court.”

“I’d stab him anyway.” John drank some cider to hide his grin. Harold was most likely doing the same, settling into John’s side. John made sure he wasn’t pushing on Harold’s bad leg. “Speaking of bonds, where is that ragged mutt of yours?”

“He is basking in the glory of having brought home the bacon.” Harold sniffed, looking appalled. “He killed enough wild boars to feed the entire village. The Guard had to make two trips to get them all.”

John blinked. “Well, then, I suppose it would be rude to bolt for the nearest slab of bacon?”

“Yes, it would.” Harold chuckled, drinking his cider. “Anyway, it’ll be hours before it’s ready. Berren was lauded as a hero, of course.”

“Rightfully so.” John’s mouth watered at the idea of breakfast. “I was very spoiled at the Palace. I had bacon nearly every day.”

“Life on the road lacks amenities,” Harold said in a quiet voice.

John kissed him on the side of the head. “Doesn’t lack where it matters.” He loved it when Harold blushed. “You were te’sorthene before you were my lifebonded. Give up, Harold. I Choose you.”

“Ridiculous,” Harold grumbled, but his eyes were bright. “I can’t even imagine why.”

“Ask Berren.” John finished his cider and flipped over, pulling Harold underneath him with a squawk that warmed John’s heart. Harold did manage to save his cup, but only just.

The Guard left early that next morning, taking the brigands and Elias’ gang with them. John and Harold watched them leave before returning to the inn to start another day of helping the villagers. Herald Soren had taken the matter to the Crown, which had sent back money and supplies, but most of the people were still too hurt to go about their regular tasks.

That left Harold, John, and the few healthy people to do all the chores that needed doing. By night, exhausted, they collapsed in their cottage to begin again the next day. By the end of the first week, John was desperate, and Harold was limping heavily.

:You must find help.: Berren planted himself in front of John, sitting nearly on John’s boots.

Dropping his shields, John spread his hands. :Where? Who would trust these people?:

Berren flashed his teeth. :You were the King’s Own. Think! Find a solution! Before our bonded dies of exhaustion!:

Shocked, but not arguing, John rubbed his face, rebuilding his shields. Berren was right. John could feel Harold’s exhaustion through the bond. Frustrated, John went and pulled Harold from his task – slopping hogs – and took him to their cottage, almost against his will.

“Rest! Now! You’re hurting us all!” John helped him wash and got him in the bed. “Sleep! And don’t argue!”

“Bossy.” Harold turned his back on him, but he was asleep before Berren curled close to him. First, John went to finish the job of the hogs, and then he went to the inn. The Healer gave him a long look, and John drew her outside to talk.

“Most of these people could go home. They’re just afraid.” Her voice was low, and she was wringing her hands. “I can’t make them leave.”

“Well, I can.” John went back inside and slammed the door. “The Healer is leaving! Move your arses toward home!” He saw the innkeeper give a nod. “Anyone left better be buying ale or a meal!”

There was groaning, moaning, complaints, and John helped several people to their cottage, promising to check on them tomorrow. Wives trembled, husbands grumbled, but it was time, and John could see the children were relieved. The Healer did help move the two worst, right to the floor of John and Harold’s cottage.

John set them up in style on comfortable bedrolls with pillows, and the two widow women seemed grateful, one whispering that she had grown tired of the inn. The Healer spent another session with each of them, smiling at John when she was finished.

“Now, I can go home.” She nodded in satisfaction. “Can you get my bay gelding ready, while I can retrieve my things?”

“My pleasure.” John made sure Harold was still sleeping before going to saddle her horse. It was a very plain bay with a long face and four black socks. John had thought he was easy to handle but hadn’t realized he was the Healer’s.

She appeared quickly, slipping her horse a piece of carrot and mounting easily. With a light hand, she patted the gelding’s neck. “Thank you, Envoy John.”

“Thank you, Healer Tillman. Goddess bless you and your horse.” John went to clean up the inn, putting it to rights before accepting a basket of food and returning to his cottage. He supposed it wasn’t theirs any longer. Harold had a soft heart, and the women needed a place.

That night, as John slid into bed, so tired he could barely think, he still managed a rough smile.

“Tomorrow?” Harold asked, voice low.

John had found him meeting with the innkeeper. Harold had waited until they were outside, near the stable. John nodded. “We’re ready. Mabel and Edina want us out from underfoot.”

They laughed together. Harold had given them the bed two days ago. John filled Betsy’s hay rack again. “All the horses are fat.”

Harold gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Let’s sleep in the wagon.”

“I’ll get the rest of my weapons from the cottage.” John enjoyed Harold’s wince. The ladies were cooking, and he could tell they were glad to see him hauling out his sword, axes, and other bits he’d picked up. Harold wasn’t in the wagon, which made it easier to pile everything on the floor. John made three trips, finding some tea that Harold would want and grabbing a pillow because he liked it. “Mabel, did Harold give you that purse of coin he was talking about earlier?”

It was a gambit.

Mabel shot a quick look at Edina. “Must ‘ave slipped ‘is mind, sirrah.”

Edina nodded a little too vigorously. John grinned and started searching his tunic but came up empty. “I’ll just go talk to Harold about this!”

“No!” Mabel started loading a basket with breads and cheeses and sliced vegetables. “We’ll do jes’ fine.”

“We will!” Edina added pickles and cold meats. “Thankee!”

John took the basket with an elaborate bow and thanks, casting a quick look but he thought they had everything they needed from the cottage. He was still smiling when he opened the wagon door and put the dinner basket in Harold’s lap.

“I approve.” Harold caught John by the hand. “Your eyes are twinkling.”

“Mabel says you didn’t give them any coin.” John sat at Harold’s feet. “But I shouldn’t ask you about it.”

And Harold laughed, head thrown back, mouth wide in a smile, and John was entranced by the sight so rarely seen.

“Berren said they were crafty.” Harold put his hand on John’s shoulder, squeezing. “Let’s leave early.”

“Before the sun is up.” John was more than ready to get back on the road. Heralds would be checking in here frequently, and the Guard would deliver supplies in the winter, if needed. Come Spring, Elias and his group would come back and John hoped they wouldn’t need his attention again.

Together, they put the wagon to rights, and John thought Harold might have a point that they were running out of room for his weapons. “I don’t even have a long sword!” he complained.

“I’m shocked,” Harold drawled. “At least I know what to get you for a Midwinter’s gift!”

“I’m pretty choosy. Better stick with another throwing axe.” John stashed the pillow on his bedroll and handed Harold the tea to put away.

“You only have two hands.” Harold frowned at him. “That is if you can find time for me this year.”

Raising his eyebrows, John sat on the bed and simply stared at him. The lifebond between them flexed and then settled. Harold sighed and sat down next to him. “I apologize. I know you were struggling last winter. I was--.”

“Jealous.” John had known it, but he hadn’t thought it was something to be discussed. He should’ve known that never worked with Harold. “Of my bond with the King. I know.”

Harold pursed his lips, gently placing his trembling hand on John’s leg. “I saw the both of you at Court, not often, but occasionally. You only had eyes for him. That day, when I saw you in the road, my heart ached for you, and I couldn’t just drive away from you.”

John hung his head. He’d suspected that, but hearing it hurt. He thought for a moment, remembering words his Goddess had said. “Harold, remember the first time the Goddess pulled me onto the moonpaths?”

“First time? There have been more times?” Harold never missed a beat.

“Yes, but right now, the first time, She told me that one of my Gifts was bonding, and that Jesse wouldn’t want me to neglect our bond because of the one I had shared with him.” John struggled to get the words out because Goddess knew Harold would have a thousand questions. “We share something that Jesse and I never had, but if you want to be jealous, I’m not going to try to stop you.”

“Oh, John.” Harold seemed to start breathing again. “It’s just,” he took a deep breath, “that I saw your love for him, and I am nowhere near the man he was.”

These words came much easier. “He was the King, born and Chosen for that. We did not share a lifebond. You had a different path, and we do share a lifebond, one that I believe will be very strong. You can’t compare apples and oranges, Harold.”

“Yes, yes I can.” Harold leaned against him. “But I’ll try not to do so.”

“The Goddess said we have many years together, so take your time.” John nudged him with his shoulder. His stomach took that moment to rumble, breaking the spell Harold was under. They ate, and John made Harold eat more than usual. They were both thin, worn down, and he could only hope the rest of their circuit was easier than the last moon had been.

Chapter Text

Long before the sun even considered rising, John mounted Fireball and coaxed Betsy into a gentle start away from the village. He hadn’t attached the lines, but she didn’t seem confused, following his commands easily even from Fireball’s back.

No one saw them off, and John was glad of it. He had no desire for thanks. The two lanterns on the wagon were lit, just in case, and Fireball was prancing like he was off to war. The two mares seemed pleased to be going as well, and John took a deep breath.

:Good riddance.: Berren trotted up and jumped up on the moving wagon to sit in the seat as if he were driving.

Dropping his shields, John answered him. :More trouble than they were worth.:

:With any luck, weather will take them.: Berren settled down to sprawl lengthwise, taking up the entire seat. :Now, John of the Shin’a’in, I want you to put up a shield so thin you can see out of it. Don’t visualize a wall. Think of the finest silk, draped over your lover’s body.:

John made a face at him, but he did it. Slowly, carefully, bringing up a thin veil from his ground and center.

:Let it settle into your mind. Do not think of weapons, battlements, or protection of any sort!:

It was a struggle. John zoned out, focusing on the task, letting it envelope him. :This won’t do anything!:

:It will keep you from projecting while allowing you to speak to other Gifted ones. You cannot race around the countryside on your red horse, throwing thoughts and emotions everywhere. Your mindvoice was so loud, I fell down twice!:

“Sorry,” John said, meaning it. “Why was I never taught these techniques?”

Berren gave him a look but said nothing. John sighed. “I’ll mention it to the proper people.” And he would. He shut his eyes and looked at his shield, thin as gossamer, but it had rips in it, and that would never do. “Maybe I’ve never seen thin silk.”

Sneezing, Berren flopped over. John got the message. He took the flimsy shield down. This time, he pictured a cell with iron bars and pulled it around himself. :Will this work?:

:No, you idiot.:

It was impossible not to laugh. John dropped it all, put up his usual shield, and relaxed into putting Fireball through his paces. There was time to get it right. Two candlemarks after sunrise, Harold stuck his head through the small door, saw Berren asleep on the bench seat and John trotting slightly ahead of Betsy on Fireball.

“I can see my talents aren’t needed,” Harold said, sniffing.

John smiled at Harold’s slightly mussed appearance. “Go sleep. I can feel how tired you are.”

“Mother hen,” Harold grumbled, shutting the door. John listened through the lifebond until he heard Harold go to sleep again. It was a relief. His lifebonded had done too much for a village of people who would never thank him for it. Hell, they might try to rob him again next year!

The day promised to be another hot one, and John refused to push his fat horses. They’d need a few days of traveling to get used to it again. He took a water break at midday and checked carefully for hot spots on legs.

They were two good days out of Kettlesmith, and he might turn it into three. The horses were fat, but he, Harold, and Berren needed some meat on their bones. “Hey, fur face, why don’t you go get some meat for dinner?”

Berren yawned and stretched before bounding away. Harold stumbled out of the wagon moments later. John caught him before he fell, pulling him close. “You awake?”

“Not at all.” Harold sagged against him. “Honestly, I don’t feel well.”

“Let’s get you in the shade.” John picked him up and carried him, alarmed when Harold curled into him instead of protesting. Retrieving his bedroll and pillow quickly, John made him a spot to rest, plying him with fresh water and some bread.

Harold roused a bit and insisted John look after Betsy, who was eyeing the bread jealously. John nodded and saw to all the horses, working on making a comfortable camp while keeping an eye on his lifebonded.

“Shouldn’t we continue today?” Harold wasn’t complaining as much as he sounded confused.

Padding over to him, John forced more water on him. “We’ve gone far enough. Everyone is tired except Fireball.”

“His enthusiasm for life is exhausting.” Harold rested back against the pillow and shut his eyes. He hadn’t even put on his glasses, so John knew he didn’t feel well. It was far too hot for a fire, but John laid one in the stones so he could make Harold some tea. While he waited for the water to boil, he sat near Harold and held his hand while he rested.

The lifebond was strong and loud so John wasn’t worried, not exactly, but he’d be glad when Berren returned. While he sat, he tried to visualize whisper-thin silk. He’d seen many, many dresses in his years at Court, but he couldn’t remember any woman brazen enough to wear something like that. And the one person John had been avidly watching, King Jesse, did not dress in silk!

Sighing, he wondered if fishnet would work. He knew what that looked like. Shutting his eyes, he imagined a net with the smallest holes possible, letting through a bare dribble of water, and then pulled it around himself as he dropped his protective shield.

:Berren, Harold is sick.:

:I’m coming back, and your shield is barely adequate.:

John was glad to hear it. It was a start. He went to the wagon and rummaged to find some fruit. An apple and some cheese, and he went back to see if he could get Harold to eat a bite with his tea. His face was still red, but his eyes weren’t as crazy.

Helping him sit up, John hand fed him so he couldn’t do his usual nibbling. Harold grumbled, but he ate it all and then fell into a doze. John made sure Harold’s collar was loose and dipped a cloth in cool water to put on his forehead. Harold muttered but didn’t open his eyes.

It wasn’t long before Berren came loping through the underbrush to stand over Harold, tongue hanging out, panting like he’d run. John waited impatiently. “Well?”

:He’s exhausted, and there’s the heat, but he has an infection in his bad leg, probably brought on by overworking it.: Berren sat down, not touching Harold. :Or a puncture wound that he didn’t tell us about.:

“That sounds more like him.” John stood, scooped Harold up, and started for the wagon. Harold would be angry if they took his pants off in the open, of that John was sure. “Come on, fur face.”

Gently, John put him on the bed. “Harold, time for bed.”

Harold roused and glanced between them. “I thought I’d remember dinner.”

“Berren wants you to rest.” John started helping him out of his clothes, pulling the lifebond tight so Harold would cooperate. Harold muttered, but he stripped off his tunic. John went for the thick, quality trews, and Harold caught him by the hands. “John!”

“We need them off.” John would use his knife if necessary. “You’re too hot.”

“I am.” Harold sighed. “Make Berren turn around.”

John glanced at Berren, who turned his back. Later, John would laugh about it. Harold slid his trews off and fussed at John to hang them up properly. John did as he was told, and Harold sighed deeply.

“I am rather tired.” He still had on a singlet and a skin-tight pair of trews. John thought it was an excessive amount of clothes, especially since it was summer. Harold rubbed his face. “Let’s open the vents.”

“Good idea.” John did that, glad of the breeze that swirled inside. “Now, keep taking them off.”

“Absolutely not.” Harold gave him a full glare.

Berren made a noise like a laugh. John sat down at Harold’s feet. “You can keep the singlet.” He took a good hold and started tugging. Harold squawked about it but gave up soon enough. The bloody, oozing hole in his calf was easy to see.

“Found it.” John could feel the heat coming off the wound. “Harold, you are in so much trouble.”

“Oh, my.” Harold stared down at his leg. “I caught it on some fencing. I washed it!”

Berren had his nose right there, and John watched them talk about it, not feeling left out. Finally, Harold relaxed back on some pillows, and John followed Berren’s orders on how to clean it properly before applying some of the salve they carried.

:The infection is mild and will heal naturally, but he has damaged his hip, again.: Berren sounded angry. :He needs a full healing, and my energies are too low.:

John tugged a very light blanket over Harold’s legs. “Let me get you some food.”

Harold opened his eyes. “I could eat a little.” He patted John on the hand. “Don’t worry, John.”

“I’ll worry when Berren tells me it’s time.” John got him some cider to sip. “Rest.” He brought him some easy foods to eat in bed and stayed close. When Harold fell into a deep sleep, John went to check the horses and make some tea for the morning. The sun was down, and he squatted by the fire, thinking furiously.

:We will continue on, but he will need to stay in bed.:

“He’s so stubborn.” John should’ve done more for him. “There’ll be a Healer in Kettlesmith.” He took a hard look at Berren. “And you’re far too skinny.” He thought they were all in sad shape.

Berren sneezed, and John went to find him some of the cured meats. He found an old sausage that Harold must’ve been saving for some time. Berren didn’t argue about it, just settling down by Harold to gnaw on it.

While the tea steeped, John considered the setting sun and decided they’d keep moving. He was the best off, well, Fireball was fine, and as long as he rested Betsy regularly, it wasn’t dangerous. Not rushing, he began to pack up, and he had them on the road again within the hour. Betsy seemed a little confused, but willing enough.

When it was true dark, he stopped long enough to light the lanterns. The road was wide and clear, and he didn’t push her. The moon came up, and he made frequent stops, but at sunrise, they were still moving.

After another rest with food and water, he mounted Fireball with a groan and let him lead the way. Betsy followed along willingly. The lifebond stayed quiet, which was good. Fireball’s trot kept John awake.

When the cool of the morning had burned away, he began looking for a good spot and found one near a stream. Betsy blew out, glad to stop, and Fireball only half-heartedly protested. John took care of the horses first, and then checked on Harold, who was dozing.

“How do you feel?”

“I’m fine.” Harold seemed to be making a move toward his trousers, and John simply wrapped him up in the sheet and carried him out to the bedroll John had set up in the shade. Harold’s face went from astonished to irritated, so he wasn’t feeling too terrible.

Berren disappeared into the bushes, and John ignored Harold’s complaints, getting him food and water, and a cool rag. The leg was still infected, so John put more medicine on it.

“Anyone could ride up!”

John sat down next to him. “I’ll protect your virtue.”

“You’re a very obstinate man!” Harold was enjoying his tea. John could tell. He made sure his weapons were close, rested his head on Harold’s good leg, and shut his eyes. When Harold’s hand came down to brush his hair back, John fell asleep.

Chapter Text

“I simply must work. People count on me!”

“No.” John swung down off Fireball, stretched his back, and swallowed a yawn.

Harold put on the brake but made no move to climb down. Berren hopped to the ground, stretched, and yawned. He gave Harold a look, and John took it to mean that it was two against one.

Kettlesmith was large compared to most of the villages they stopped at, and John had had to ask directions to the Healer’s. Her house, slate roof, was near the west side of town, and John hoped she had a strong Gift.

Berren had eaten everything in the wagon that wasn’t fruit, but he still needed time to recover. Worried now they were actually at the Healer, John stepped up to her door and knocked.

“Master Harold!” She looked beyond John after opening the door. “What’s wrong?” Her voice changed, and she brought her gaze back to him. “And you are?”

“John shena Tale’sedrin, and I travel with Master Harold.” John stepped back so she’d feel less crowded on her own doorstep. “He hurt his leg.”

“I’m fine,” Harold grumbled, but he made no move to get down, so his leg must’ve hurt.

“Then I’m sure it’s awful.” She looked them all over. “You all look a bit rough. Why don’t you leave Harold with me and stable your horses over at the Golden Bear?”

John’s instinct was to say no, but Berren trotted over and sat down in front of her. Her eyebrows went up. “Nice to meet you. Yes, yes.” She gave John a steady look. “Carry him inside, Tale’sedrin.”

And he liked her. He tied Fireball to the wagon, but he wasn’t worried about the others. Harold complained mightily, but John just swung him into his arms and carried him inside and back to a room with a special bed for patients. Berren followed close at their heels.

“Harold, I’ll be back. Please don’t run off.” John helped him get settled and brushed his forehead with a kiss.

“I see he knows you pretty well.” She smiled. “Oh, I’m Healer Enright. Everyone calls me Maddie.”

John nodded. “I have Mindspeech. I can help, if you need it.”

“Thank you.” She turned to Harold, all business.

John didn’t bother getting back on Fireball. He walked them to the inn, glad he’d noticed it. It’d been so long since he was in a real town that he felt surrounded by houses and people.

The stablemaster was glad for the coin, but John warned him away from Fireball. “I’ll take care of him.”

“He’s handsome.” The stablemaster yelled at his boys to get working on Betsy and the mares, but he stayed right with John. “He for sale?”

“No, and don’t try to feed him. He won’t stand for it.” John kept an eye on the stable boys. He’d toss them a copper if they did well. The wagon was pushed out of the way, and John made sure it was locked after Fireball was settled with sweet feed and fodder. Betsy had dropped weight in the last two days of travel, as John had kept them moving, but she looked good.

The mares swished their tails, happy, and he noticed one of the stable boys making much of them. He got a copper before John headed back to the Healer’s. He wasn’t worried, not much, as Berren was there, and the lifebond was quiet.

He knocked politely on the front door, and another lady opened it. She smiled. “John?”

Nodding, he followed her back to the exam room. “Maddie, I found your wayward Shin’a’in,” she said as they went through the doorway.

“I was never lost.” John went straight to Harold, sinking down to the floor to sit by his head, and taking Harold’s hand when it was offered. The bond resonated between them, smooth and easy. Berren was stretched out on the floor, looking half-asleep. “Tell me everything.”

The Healer raised her eyebrows. “This is my wife, Amy. Amy, this is John shena Tale’sedrin, Harold’s lifebonded, if you couldn’t tell.”

Amy smiled. “I’ll go work on dinner. You all look hungry.”

“Thank you,” John said. He glanced at Harold, who seemed pretty relaxed on the bed. “Did you drug him?”

“Yes. A painkiller. He needed it.” Maddie pulled a chair close and sat down. “Berren and I agree. The original injury is infected from the puncture wound, but the problem is his hip.”

“Why?” John growled, not liking the sound of this.

“Berren warned me that you were growly, and I’m to ignore it.” Maddie seemed strong and capable, not the sort of Healer to make mistakes. “He’s been limping for years, and it has damaged the hip.”

“Limping?” John had a hard time with that idea.

“It’s unnatural. Berren has done good work on the actual break site, below the knee, but when he hit his leg on the fence, it jangled the hip apart.” She paused. “He needs to rest right now, but tomorrow, we need to decide how he wants to go forward.”

John felt Harold fall asleep. He took a moment to think. “Perhaps we should push on the Healer’s Collegium in Haven.” He wanted only the best Healers for his lifebonded.

She didn’t seem intimidated. “I am the best.” She put up her hand. “But I’m calling in all the Healers in this area. Master Harold is too important to Valdemar to make a mistake. Berren agrees. The more minds the better. I’ve sent messages. Healers will start arriving tomorrow.”

Looking over at Berren, satisfied, John nodded. “Thank you.”

“Good.” She got to her feet. “You need a bath, and I want to check your arm. Berren’s eaten once, and he’ll eat again with dinner. Come along.”

“Bossy.” He eased up, kissed Harold’s hand, and made sure the blanket was high enough. Berren was close, it was safe, but he still had a hard time leaving him so vulnerable.

“Lifebonded make my teeth hurt. Come on.” She led the way to the luxury of an indoor bath.

John took his time, getting very clean and feeling better at the end of it. Once his trews were back on, Maddie came through the door without knocking. His eyebrows went up, but all she did was exam his arm and shoulder, poking and prodding, making him raise it over his head.

“It’ll do.” She looked him up and down. “Eat more. You’re underweight.”

“Thanks?” John finished dressing, trailing her out to the kitchen. Amy flashed him a smile, and he thanked her. The house was cozy, clean and fresh, and he felt out of place, like he belonged in a stable. “I’ll just check on Harold,” he muttered, not caring that the doctor snorted in exasperation.

Harold was asleep, Berren not far away, and John sat with his back to the wall on the floor close to Harold’s bed. He shut his eyes, the lifebond was fine, and he took a deep breath before tearing down his fishnet shield. Instead, he put up the one Berren called ridiculous. He didn’t want any of the Healers picking up emotions from him.

With a small groan, Harold rolled to his side and reached. John took him by the hand, gold from Jesse’s ring glinting between their fingers. “Sleep, Harold.”

“John,” he whispered, but he wasn’t awake. He fell into a deeper sleep, and John didn’t let go.

:Go brush the horses, or something.: Berren nudged John with his nose. :You know all this fuss humiliates him.:

“I’m going,” John growled.

Healers had descended on them the following day, and it was time for another examination, and John wanted to knife a few of them for their callous remarks, so it was time to leave. He sent affection into the lifebond and slipped out the door.

The horses were fine, but Fireball was bored, and that was always trouble, so John saddled him, taking him to the outskirts of town where there was a racetrack. Giving Fireball his head to run was never a good idea on the road, but here, it was safe, and John warmed him up before turning him loose.

Companions were fast. Rolan was faster than the wind, but Fireball was something else entirely. It wasn’t the perfect, easy rhythm of a Companion. It was the pace of a horse hell bent on beating the earth into submission.

John let out a yell and urged him on until they almost dug a trench from the pounding. A deep joy took root in him, and he moved as one with his horse, wind giving way to their dominance. The words of his Goddess slipped into his mind, and he remembered he had a Gift. The Gift of making bonds, and if she said it was real, then it was, and he dropped his shields.

Fireball found breath enough to neigh, and John wrapped his hands tighter into Fireball’s long mane. He could almost see the bright, royal blue of Fireball’s lifeforce, and then he was inside it, blind to the track.

With care, John listened, in awe of the horse’s strength and heart. Stretching and landing, every hoof placed perfectly, and they flashed around the last turn, streaking towards the finish line, racing for the joy of it.

With a gentle tug, John pulled a tiny bit of the blue, stretching it out thin and lodging it away safely near his heart. That done, he sat back, hands easy, not pulling on the reins as Fireball began to slow. The canter was steady, and John let him slow naturally. Eyes open now, John sat perfectly still, just getting the feel of him in his mind.

Bold, brilliant, strong, a touch foolish, and he’d rather run than eat. They rounded the far turn again, this time in a trot, and John held the new bond close as he carefully rebuilt his shields.

:Harold wants you back, Shin’a’in.:

John turned Fireball that direction, and he ignored the small crowd of people that had been watching them run. Fireball snorted, bobbing his head, and John could feel the horse’s delight and desire to gallop again. He was impatient, and John soothed him.

It didn’t take them long to get to the small house, and John swung down and put his forehead against Fireball’s neck. Speaking in Shin’a’in, he told the horse how was great he was, and to wait, even if it took too long. Fireball curled his neck back and hugged him.

“He’s gorgeous.” Maddie had opened the door for him.

“He’ll do.” John loosened the girth before going to her. “Harold?”

“He wants you to join us for lunch.” Maddie smiled. “The rest of the Healers have gone to the Golden Bear to eat.”

John was sure Harold had needed a break from them. He washed up before going to the kitchen table. Glad to see Harold up, he sat by him, lacing their fingers together and taking a deep breath.

“How are the horses?” Harold smiled, not protesting the touch.

“Good. Betsy wanted treats, of course.” John smiled for Amy and Maddie. “Fireball says hello.”

“Berren said you were out racing him.”

Berren was under the table. John was very sure Maddie had been feeding him constantly. “He was bored.”

“Amy says I need a horse.” Maddie brought over a large fruit salad, shaking her head. “I’m not sure.”

“We could build a little stable. Get you a nice, sturdy pony.” Amy seemed to have ideas. “You waste too much time walking.”

“I like her.” John stole a few slices of apple from the bowl. “I’ll be right back.” He padded back outside to Fireball and fed them to him. Fireball, hoof cocked, half-asleep, ate them quickly. He was, clearly, fine after his run. He radiated health.

Another quick wash, and John was back at the table. “Just checking on him.”

“He’s a handful.” Harold was smiling though. “John’s the only one who can ride him.”

“Berren does.” John snorted. “You could. He’s just choosy. What you need, Maddie, is a horse smart enough to get you home when you’re tired from Healing. I could look.” He was more than willing to help.

“Never turn down help from a Shin’a’in when it comes to horses,” Amy said, and suddenly, it seemed, the table was groaning with food. Maddie served up different meats and vegetables, pushing fruit on them.

John made sure Harold had his favorites. The conversation moved around him, and John found himself relaxing. They were in good hands here. Maddie would do right by Harold.

“Eat, John. You’re too thin,” Harold fussed. “The chicken is delicious.”

“Nice change from rabbit.” John filled his plate again. “Maybe we should get some chickens.”

“Berren likes that idea.” Harold smiled.

Everyone laughed. Maddie nudged her plate away. “Enough fun. Harold has a decision to make. Lay it out for him, Harold.”

Turning to him, John gave him his complete attention. Harold cleared his throat, looked a bit nervous, and took a drink of wine. Then he sighed. John had him by the hand. “Whatever you decide will be right for you.”

“Thank you, John,” Harold whispered, and then he cleared his throat again. “The Healers want to do a full Healing with you, using your Gift, to help give them power.”

“Me?” John was willing, of course.

Maddie sighed. “You were the King’s Own, of course your Gifts are extraordinary. Just being in Rolan’s presence for years would’ve strengthened them. Heralds, I swear.”

“I thought we weren’t telling people that,” John whispered to Harold.

Harold narrowed his eyes. “You’re not funny.” He pinched John’s leg. “She recognized you.”

John had seen it in her eyes, but he hadn’t wanted to discuss it. “Will you limp when it's done?”

Maddie answered him. “The leg is slightly shorter than the other, so yes, but it won’t be as severe, and traveling with Berren, no doubt he will be able to manage it.”

“The risk?” John knew there was risk. There always was.

“Once we begin, if the hip is too far gone, we’ll have to amputate.” Maddie spat the words at him, making Harold flinch. “About half the Healers are sure the bone density is adequate, but the rest think otherwise.”

“What does Berren think?” John trusted him.

:The hip will heal. The leg will fine in time, but you, Shin’a’in, may die from this.:

Everyone must’ve heard him because they all winced, and Harold shoved his chair back and fled the table, limping heavily, disappearing from sight. John could feel Harold’s anguish. “If I die, he dies.”

“Most likely.” Maddie took Amy’s hand. “Not right away, maybe, but Berren attests to the strength of the lifebond, so there’s a chance.”

John eased to his feet. “Thank you for lunch.” He followed his lifebonded, trailing him out the door and finding him leaning against Fireball, idly stroking his shoulder. Pulling up short, John just watched him.

Loving Jesse had been easy as breathing. Being bonded to Harold was like wrestling Fireball down from a jarring trot to a walk. And John loved that, too. He loved Harold and admitting it was both a relief and an ache. If he had to say the words, it might kill him.

“I can’t lose you.” Harold spoke directly to Fireball’s neck.

“Sounds to me like we’re in this together. They don’t give you much time if I go first.” John hated the idea of that. He sat down on the step, giving Harold the space. “Would you rather they just amputate? Get you a peg leg?”

Harold didn’t flinch, or even shoot him a look, so he’d been thinking about it. “I’d have to give up my wagon. Stay at Ashkevron Manor.”

“I don’t see why. I’d carry you, if you were stuck.” John thought Harold would do fine. Harold was many things, but mostly stubborn. “You could still drive the wagon.”

With a long sigh, Harold leaned his head against Fireball’s neck, and that damn horse stood four-square solid for him, not even twitching. John tried another solution. “Or we could retire to that little cabin by the river. I liked it there.”

Harold turned to him now. “Retire? At your age? That would be robbing Valdemar of a valuable resource, and I can’t do that!”

“Well, at least you feel strongly about it.” John moved to him, wrapping one arm around him to help take the weight off the bad leg. “You’ve lived with this pain a long time. It’s an old familiar friend. You feel like it’s your punishment for losing your brother. We can ignore the Healers. Keep moving.”

Harold turned towards him now, but Fireball stayed near him. “I suggested that to Berren. The infection will heal. The hip won’t. Within six months, I won’t be walking at all.”

“All the pain, same result as an amputation.” John nuzzled Harold’s hair. Unable to tell him how he felt, John dropped his shields and asked the lifebond to wrap them both up like a gift at Midwinter. With a gasp, they dropped into the grass right under Fireball’s nose. Fireball blew out, giving them the eye.

“Oh, my.” Harold curled into him. John agreed with that. Everything was brighter, intense, and John could feel Berren through Harold, and Berren wasn’t happy. Harold poked John in the chest with his finger. “You bonded with Fireball!”

“Oops?” John kissed him very gently, hoping Harold could feel the love that John couldn’t talk about, maybe ever. Harold wrapped a hand around John’s neck and squeezed, and John thought Harold got it.

The door opened, and John stood, picking Harold right up off the ground. “We’re coming.”

“My patient needs to be in bed!” Maddie sounded very indignant.

“Berren’s patient,” John whispered, knowing she’d hear him, but he took Harold to bed. “I’ll get you some tea. Stay put.”

:Raise those shields before I go deaf.:

“Harold, I’m raising my shields. Apparently, we’re noisy. Hang on.” John found his ground and center and eased them up, hearing Berren’s sneeze of relief.

“It is very intense.” Harold didn’t turn loose of John’s arm. “You’ll sit with me?”

“Of course. Want me to get your book from the wagon?” John knew where Harold’s new one was sitting.

“Fireball is hungry, as well.” Harold smiled, giving him a pat. “Get us some fresh clothes?”

“I’ll pack a bag for us.” John kissed him on the forehead. “Rest.” He only looked back once, spotted the glare from Maddie, and motioned at Berren to follow him. There were always bones to chew at inns, and Berren probably needed a break.

Fireball raised his head when John stepped out the door. John mounted with one quick move, ignoring the reins. “Wagon,” he said, pushing the idea at him.

With a snort, Fireball went to a trot, of course, but he was going the right direction.

Chapter Text

They practiced hooking their Gifts together all morning, and Berren was a tough taskmaster. John worked on his shields, alternating between types, even learning a layering technique from Maddie that Berren actually pronounced satisfactory.

When Berren said they were ready, John blew out a sigh of relief. The operation was tomorrow, and he had to be at his best. Harold had fumed about his choices, but they’d both known there was only one decision that would suit them.

The Healers would fix him, or the leg would be gone, and either way, Harold’s life was going to change. John took confidence from Berren’s attitude. Berren wasn’t worried, not yet, so they’d get through this together.

After a big lunch, Harold was forced to nap by Maddie, and John escaped to the stable. The sun was up, it was a great summer day, and John trotted over to see Fireball.

The stablemaster was near the stall, and John waited to hear it while he bridled Fireball, tossing the reins over his head to lay on his neck. Fireball started prancing in place, and John took him out to the yard, deciding against the saddle.

"My name's Leon." The stablemaster didn't stick out his hand, but he knew his way around horses, so John didn't judge him harshly.

"John." John kept it simple. "What do you want?"

“This is the thing.” Leon grinned. “Lord Snow wants a match race. Your horse against his.”

“Sounds stupid.” John almost smiled when Fireball dropped his head over John’s shoulder, probably looking for treats. He adjusted one of the shiny baubles on Fireball’s bridle, making sure it wouldn’t catch on anything. “Tell him no.”

“Lots of money to be made.” Leon shrugged. “If’n you win.”

John thought about it again. “You mean money to be made by you because no one is going to bet against the Lord’s horse.”

“He’s undefeated. Big, black stallion, likes to bite.” The stablemaster nodded.

“My horses stay here free.” John narrowed his eyes. “Free food, and you pay the farrier, if I need it done.”

Leon had the courage to glare at him. “You lose, you pay double, and you get your horses out of here.”

“Deal.” John wasn’t all that worried. “Does the Lord make side bets?”

That saucy grin was the answer. “Don’t lose your pretty Shin’a’in shirt!”

Fireball raised his head high and neighed. John mounted him easily and took him towards the track. By the time he got Fireball on the dirt, there was a crowd watching, and Lord Snow was easy to spot in his fine clothes, acting like he was at Court.

John trotted Fireball over to him and stared down at him. “What’s this I hear about a race?”

“My fine horse against yours.” The Lord smirked, seeming to dismiss Fireball with a single look. “Mine is Shin’a’in bred, never been beat.”

“I’m trembling,” John drawled. He wasn’t worried. “What’s in it for me?”

“I win, I get your gelding.” The Lord was tall, thin, and a manner that rubbed John wrong. “You win, you get choice of my stables, not my stallion, of course.”

“Of course.” John thought about it. This was an opportunity to get Maddie a better horse than perhaps John could find elsewhere. “When?”

“In three hours, when the heat of the day has burned off.” The Lord smirked.

“You put some little boy on that stallion, and the race is off. Your rider should be about my weight.” John wasn’t putting up with that. “Three hours.” He took Fireball around the track once at a gentle canter so the bets could be placed and then back to the inn. Fireball was cranky about it, having wanted a good run.

Leon rushed up to him. “Choice of his stables! You could make a fortune!”

“My lifebonded is an Ashkevron. It’ll be hard to impress me.” John dismounted and took Fireball to his stall. Three hours to get ready was plenty. He even had time for a nap.

By the time the race came around, the entire town seemed to be vibrating with excitement. A group of men had gathered in the courtyard to discuss Fireball’s merits, and John had steadfastly ignored them. The stablemaster had seemed to enjoy his fame, and the betting was fierce.

Fireball didn’t seem worried. John dressed carefully, tying his sleeves so nothing flapped and making sure his boot laces were tight. The saddle; he took off the sheepskin so it’d be lighter, and he cleaned the bridle, making it shine.

Checking hooves and a good brushing didn’t take that long, and he fed Fireball early and lightly. When it was time to go, John straightened Fireball’s forelock and mane before mounting. A crowd followed them to the track, and the black stallion was already there, kicking up a fuss and showing off his lack of training.

John could feel Fireball trembling, and he stroked him on the neck. Speaking softly in Shin’a’in, they paced to a position near the stallion. The stallion’s rider was a grown man because no boy could’ve held that horse back. The stallion was big, thick, but there was absolutely no way he was Shin’a’in. He was too bulky, and he was wasting energy fighting his rider.

Snorting, Fireball arched his neck, and John nodded that he was ready. It was Lord Snow who laid out the rules: once around the track, no interference by the riders, best horse wins. He backed away, made sure they were more or less even up, and dropped his arm. John knew it over after the first two strides.

The black was fast off the mark, but he was too heavy to last, and Fireball was furious at being left behind. John leaned into him, wrapping his hands in the red mane and slowly bringing him up to a steady speed. By the back stretch, they were one length back, but the race was over. The black was sweat-flecked, starting to fight his rider, and Fireball was just getting started.

Fireball lowered his head, just a little, and John agreed. It was time. He laughed, the track dropped away, and Fireball showed the crowd how a real Shin’a’in horse could run. The crowd was still screaming when John eased Fireball back to a canter and then a trot, making his way to the Lord.

The black stallion was furious, neighing and stomping as they dragged him away, but John made Fireball stand and blow. A few moments wouldn’t hurt him. The Lord looked at them both and then pulled a large silver coin from his pocket and handed it up to John.

“Present that to my stablemaster. Any horse I have is yours.” Lord Snow sighed. “Too bad he’s gelded.”

“He’s not that fast,” John lied. He tucked the coin away. “Good day, sir.” And he took Fireball for a moment with his adoring crowd. It cleared away quickly enough, several men brawling over losses, and John took Fireball for a walk around the track to cool him down. The stablemaster grinned like a cat in the cream when John returned to the inn.

Fireball stopped on his own for once, blew out and shook all over when John dismounted. “Ah, te’sorthene, you were magnificent.” He took off the saddle, and the stablemaster was there to hang it up. “You make a coin or two?”

Leon laughed. “Enough to add a trinket to that bridle.” He took the bridle, hung it up, and laughed again. “Not even a bit!”

“He likes to run.” John babied him, treating him like the brother that he was. Leon had a lot to say. John paid attention to his horses, making sure they were fine. “I’ll be by late tonight to check him.”

“I’ll keep an eye out as well. Master Harold is with the Healer?”

John nodded. “Not sure how long we’ll be here.” He gave Fireball one last pat on the rump, feeling his contentment.

“Not a problem.” The stablemaster went off with a grin, probably to count his winnings. John made sure the wagon was fine before wandering back to the Healer’s house. There was a cart selling meat sticks along the way, so he bought three, thinking that Berren could have one. He was down to that one by the time he reached the house.

The door opened before he could knock, and Amy grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him inside. “You are in trouble!”

Berren trotted over, claimed his meat stick, and disappeared. “Not with Berren,” John said.

“John! You idiot!” Harold’s voice rang out through the house.

“I should leave,” John muttered, but he went to his fate. “Sheka.”

Harold was still in his bed, but he looked like he wanted to get up and give John a good shake. John sat down on the edge of the bed. “Harold.”

“John.” Harold laced their hands together, squeezing hard. “I couldn’t even watch!”

“It wasn’t exciting.” John shrugged, glad Harold wasn’t really angry. “Lord Snow is a bit of an arse.”

“Oh, you’re right about that. He thinks he’s pretty special. He’s not.” Harold slumped against him, and John had to hold him. “Fireball?”

“He’s fine.” John touched the bond and knew Fireball was half-asleep. “For once, I think he’s a little tired.”

“Impossible.” Harold pulled John’s ear. “Damn Shin’a’in.”

“That’s me.” John dug in his pocket and handed Harold the coin. “I won choice of Lord Snow’s stables. Oh, and free room and board for the horses at the inn.”

“Stop it! Just! No!” Maddie came around the corner laughing. “Stop with the mushy stuff.”

Harold grinned, and John turned so they both faced her. “You let me in, so this is what you get.”

“I can toss you out.” But she was smiling. “I was there! They wanted a Healer, just in case. That horse of yours can run.”

“He can.” John pointed at the coin. “I got you a horse.”

“It won’t be Ashkevron quality,” Harold said with a sniff of disapproval that made John grin with pride.

Maddie blinked. “Really?”

“I won choice of his stable.” John nodded, taking the coin back and tucking it away. “Maybe, I can find one that will suit you. Hopefully, that black stallion is a better stud than he is a runner.”

“That’s why I was late. I had to doctor four bites. The stallion isn’t a good loser.” Maddie’s eyes rolled a bit in disapproval. “Thank you, John.”

“Just remember this when you give us the bill,” John teased her, enjoying her eyes turning sharp. Amy came up behind her and kissed the side of her head. She glared at all of them.

“You should bathe, John. You smell like a sweaty horse.” Harold nudged him. John got to his feet and swept him a courtly bow before going to find some clean clothes and a bath. He slept on his bedroll near Harold’s bed, but they had a small extra bedroom where he kept their clothes.

About the time the tub was filled, the door eased open, and John knew it was Harold before looking that direction. “Don’t you knock?” he said softly.

“Not when Maddie would hear it.” Harold shut the door firmly and locked it. “Berren is distracting her in the kitchen.”

John grinned, enjoying the help Harold gives him stripping down to nothing. One simple kiss, and then Harold said, “Bathe. You smell.”

“Harold.” John got in the tub, glad there’s a small chair for Harold to pull up close. Harold took up the soap and started to work, and he seemed to enjoy finding the ticklish spots. John wasn’t sure he liked being at such a disadvantage, but he loved watching Harold’s face when his hands were on him. “You could bathe next?”

“I had mine already.” Harold smirked. “Now, I’m going to wash your hair.”

“It’s long.” John had almost needed a ponytail for the race today. He leaned back and enjoyed Harold’s talented hands. “You ready for tomorrow?”

“No.” Harold seemed firm on that. “But it must be done, so it will be done. I trust that you’re strong enough.”

“I am.” John would give them everything he had. “We won’t die.”

“Of course not.” Harold dumped water on John’s head until the soap was washed away. “You didn’t put up with me all those miles just to lose me now.”

John twisted and kissed him gently. “That’s not happening. We’ll do this together and get back out on the road where we belong.”

“Agreed.” Harold’s hands shook a little as he came to rest them on John’s shoulders. “Maybe we’ll get a bigger wagon.”

John’s eyebrows went up. “Maybe we’ll get two wagons.” And he laughed as he pulled the plug from the tub. “Harold, I’m getting out now.”

“Oh, good.” Harold got the towel and dried John’s face first. “Kiss your ring, like you always do after a bath.”

Surprised that Harold had noticed, John did it. He didn’t know what to say so he said nothing, letting Harold dry him. Harold did a very thorough job, and John was sorry when it was over. John collected his dirty clothes as Harold hung up the towel.

“Quickly now. Berren says Maddie and Amy have gone out to buy some vegetables at the market.” Harold gasped. “Put me down.”

“Not quite yet.” John had him get the door and took him to the small bedroom, locking the door behind them. Carefully, John put him on the bed, just looking at him. “Harold, do you want to give me a ring?”

“I want to adorn your body in jewelry, so everyone knows you’re mine.” Harold wrapped a hand onto John’s thigh. “Ridiculous, I know.”

John thought he wouldn’t mind a bauble or two. He eased onto the bed, covering Harold’s body with his own. “You always have on too many clothes.”

“Not a savage.” Harold’s hands were everywhere, driving John to gasp. John refused to be rushed this time. This time, he peeled Harold out of every piece of clothing and kissed every bit of skin. Harold kept trying to wiggle enough to put an end to it, but John kept at it. Harold laughed. “Not there!”

“Everywhere,” John muttered. “Tomorrow, you remember that I kissed you, all of you.”

“Oh, John.” Harold slid his hands through John’s hair. “Knowing that my life is in your hands tomorrow, means I’m going to be fine. There’s no one in the Kingdom stronger than you.”

Pulling back, John stared down into Harold’s eyes. “Or you.” He put his finger over Harold’s lips before he could say anything to deny it. The lifebond vibrated between them, and John dropped his shields to embrace him fully.

“Oh, dear.” Harold arched up into him, and they both felt the pain in Harold’s hip. John soothed it, adjusting them until the pleasure outweighed the pain. Harold shuddered beneath him, and John wrapped them together, moving his hand in a gentle rhythm that made Harold gasp, mouth open, eyes wild.

Time seemed to drop away, and dimly John felt both Fireball and Berren in their bond. Harold suckled onto John’s neck, and he surrendered to feeling, not thinking.

:Get dressed.:

Berren’s mindvoice yelled in John’s ear, and he flinched awake, pulling up his shields before he opened his eyes. Harold strummed a hand down John’s ribs, and John tucked him closer.

“They’re coming back,” John said, kissing him. Harold’s eyes went wide, and John grinned as Harold scrambled for his clothes. John helped him dress, stealing touches and kisses, smiling at the good-natured fussing. It took only a moment for John to throw on his Shin’a’in clothes, and he even put on his boots.

“I’m going to blush when they see me.” Harold was buttoning his vest, always so refined.

“Let’s go to the Golden Bear, grab some dinner there. I know Fireball would like to see you.” John tucked his knives away, feeling Harold’s reluctance. “And several people have asked after you.”

“I don’t think I can walk all that way.” Harold shook his head.

“No shame in letting your bonded help you.” John caught Harold’s hands as he adjusted his collar. “He’d even like it.”

“Fine. I’d enjoy a night away from that bed.” Harold put on his glasses last, and he straightened John’s shirt. “Show less skin. Women swoon.”

“Right.” John stole a kiss and then following Harold as he slowly limped for the main door. They managed to get away before the ladies returned, and John only swept Harold into his arms for the last half, carrying him to the stable first.

Fireball whinnied at them, and John hid his grin as Harold made much of him, slipping him candy and praising him. The race had clearly done him no harm, and John gave him a small portion of grain before allowing Harold the dignity of limping to the front door of the inn.

Everyone seemed to stop to look, and then they were all talking and pushing to get close. John waded through people to clear a path for Harold to sit at a good table. It immediately filled, and the innkeeper grinned as he brought over ales.

Voices clamored for news, and John pushed a fellow aside so he could sit by Harold. “I did say they missed you.”

“This is ridiculous.” But Harold gave John’s hand a pat and threw himself into answering all the questions, telling the stories of their travels, and complaining about his injuries. John focused on getting food in him and keeping a cup of wine near Harold’s hand.

:You’re in trouble.:

Berren slumped over Harold's feet.

John smiled, not caring one bit.

Chapter Text

Not long before dawn, John took care of his horses and spoke briefly with Leon, the stablemaster, just in case he didn’t come back. They shook hands, and reassured the horses would go on to Haven, he went inside the wagon to fetch Harold back to the Healer’s.

Harold was sitting on the edge of his little bed. He gave him a thin smile, and John knelt in front of him. “Are you ready, te’sorthene?”

“Together,” Harold said, putting his hand on John’s cheek. John kissed him on the palm, and they shared perfect harmony between them, no words needed to express their love, and John was glad for that. Berren broke the moment by swiping his tongue up John’s face. Harold laughed and hugged him.

Wiping the spit off, John grinned. He’d lost so much, but now he had so much, and it was time to go fight for it. He got the door for Berren and Harold, surprised to see Fireball right outside. He bobbed his head up and down, and John would speak to him later about escaping his stall.

“I think Fireball wants to take us,” Harold said as John steadied him down the long step.

“He probably wants a treat.” John locked up the wagon.

Fireball turned, presenting his back, and John swung up. It was easy to pull Harold into John’s lap, so careful of the leg. “Go easy, Fireball.”

“He will.” Harold seemed more certain than John was, but Fireball took them with a sure, gentle pace back to the Healers with Berren trotting ahead of them.

Maddie opened the door. “I’ve rarely had a worse patient.”

“You hear that Harold? We’re not the worse.” John eased Harold down, glad when Maddie stepped to help. Fireball nuzzled Harold’s hair, and John slid off to give him a pat. “Go back to your stall, Fireball, and let the stablemaster feed you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Or the next day,” Maddie warned.

Fireball snorted, gave John a wild eye, and turned on his heels to gallop away. At least it was in the direction of the Golden Bear. “He won’t do it.”

“He really won’t.” Harold smiled. “I’ll have to get him something for his bridle.”

It was John’s turn to snort, but he was a little jealous.

Maddie steered Harold towards the door. “It’s time. No more stalling. We’re ready.”

Harold wrapped his hand in John’s, and they went inside together.

It took effort to open his eyes. Never, in his entire life, had he been this tired. Everything doubled, and then the white settled into a thin mist backed up by a gray sky. A tall middle-aged man, white hair, took him by the hand and helped him stand.

“Better?”

John swayed on his feet but stayed upright. “Thanks.” He noticed the man’s Whites. “Sorry, I guess we haven’t met?” There were a few Heralds he didn’t know, but this man with his piercing blue eyes and broad shoulders would’ve stood out in a crowd.

“John, take several deep breaths.” His voice was deep, and his look was kind.

Doing what he was told came easy, and he felt better, noticing they were still holding hands. For some reason, he wasn’t inclined to stop. “Where am I?”

“You’re resting, getting your bearings, and I’m making sure you get back where you belong.” He smiled and pulled John into a hug before easing away, laying his hand on John’s cheek. Staring into those blue eyes, a sense of familiarity tugged at John. The man smiled. “There you are.”

Strength poured into John, and he felt like his skin should be glowing from it. He looked down at their clasped hands, alight with power, and sent the energy where it would do the most good.

“John? John?”

:Wake up, Shin’a’in!:

Every muscle in his body hurt, and the breath he heard himself take felt like a knife stabbing into his throat. His eyes refused to open, but he followed the lifebond until he found Harold, strong and good, so good, and John needed to touch him. “Harold,” he croaked.

“Put their hands together, so John doesn’t panic.” That was Maddie. “Harold’s going to be fine, John. I promise. We thought we’d lost you!”

“Couldn’t happen.” John felt a cold rag against his lips, and he sucked at it, grateful for the moisture. He flexed his hand, almost feeling the strange Herald’s touch again, and he was grateful. “Had a little help.”

“What?” Maddie wiped the rag over John’s face, and it felt good. “Say that again?”

:She doesn’t need to know.: Berren whispered in John’s mind.

Smiling, John laced his fingers into Harold’s. Berren was right. Maddie didn’t need to know. John managed a rough swallow. “Help?”

“We’re here. Rest.” Maddie and another Healer helped him sit up, and he drank the potion, so they’d leave him alone. The inside of his head felt like a practice target. Finished, he curled around Harold and shut his eyes, desperately needing sleep.

“Harold, let John rest,” Maddie scolded.

“I’m fine.” John’s head was killing him, but he found a smile. Harold kissed him on the cheek, and John wanted more of that. “Help me up?”

“Um, no. You’d fall over.” Maddie’s voice was far too loud. “Berren went to feed Fireball so don’t worry. Harold, eat your soup.”

John shut his eyes and found his thin bond with his horse. Fireball was feeling feisty, and it was anyone’s guess whether the barn would survive until John felt well enough to walk there. The pain spiked, and he gasped. That got him another potion, and he groggily flopped down.

“Harold, I feel bad. Sorry.”

“Hush. Sleep. I’ll be here.”

“It’s been three days,” Harold said, worry in his voice.

“I sent for a Mindhealer in Haven,” Maddie replied.

John sat bolt upright, nearly puked in his lap, and shook his head. “No!” His voice sounded like a donkey braying. “I’m up! I’m up!”

“John?” Harold’s voice trembled.

“Hi.” John rested his forehead against Harold’s shoulder, needing the comfort. “No Mindhealer.”

“Let me get him a headache potion.” Maddie disappeared from John’s limited vision.

“Sorry. Tired.” John could smell himself, and he had to start moving, but all his parts felt bruised and beaten. “Your leg?”

“I’m going to be fine, thanks to you.” Harold kissed him in the hair. “You almost died.”

“Not even close,” John muttered. He drank the potion when it appeared. “Can two strong men help me to the bath?”

Maddie laughed. Harold nuzzled at him. “You do need one.”

“I’ll get some help. Amy! Draw a bath!”

“Has John decided to live?” Amy came through the door with a big smile.

“Threatened with a Mindhealer, his recovery was miraculous.” Maddie checked John’s eyes and put her hand on his forehead for a long minute. “Bath, then some food. Are your shields up?”

John had no idea. His mind was empty. “Am I projecting?” It was his curse.

“No, which is a first.” She squinted at him. “Close your eyes, find your shield.”

It wasn’t possible, and the pain pounded at him. He had to take two or three sobbing breaths. “Hurts,” he whispered, hating to admit it.

“Stop.” Maddie pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down facing him. “John, it seems as if you’ve damaged your mental pathways. You couldn’t shield if you tried, and don’t, please.”

Harold clutched at John’s hand. “No,” he whispered.

Berren made a sudden appearance, shoving his way under Harold’s other arm. John thought Berren might speak to him, but he heard nothing, and thinking about it hurt. Harold grimaced.

“Berren confirms. I’m sorry, John, so sorry.”

“Stop, Harold. If I’m burnt out, it’ll be worth it.” John’s brain felt like mush, but he didn’t care. Even if he lost his Gifts, nothing mattered but Harold. “I’m not a Herald. I don’t need Mindspeech.”

Everyone seemed to give him a long, sad look, and he rolled his eyes, not wanting their sympathy. He was Shin’a’in, and that was enough. “Goddess, I stink. Bath, please.” And he started scooting for the edge of the bed. Everyone seemed jolted, and sure enough, two big fellows helped him to the tub.

A nudge to his back made John turn, and he smiled. “Well, hello, Fireball. Escape your stall again?”

Fireball pawed at the ground, and John stowed his hammer before accepting the invitation to mount him. The other workers gave him a salute. John returned it and gave Fireball a nudge with his heel.

“What do you think of this little stable?”

The horse didn’t answer, just heading for the track. John laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “I suppose you’re bored. We’re almost done. Tomorrow, Maddie and I are going horse shopping, and no, you’re not coming. No sense rubbing salt in that stallion’s wound.”

Berren ran up alongside them, and Fireball pretended to strike at him. John knew that Harold had sent him. A week since he’d woken up, and Harold still worried. “Berren, I’m fine.”

A snort, and a side-eye, and John shrugged. He tired easily, and his head often ached, but he was strong enough to help build a stable, and he was sick of sleeping. Harold gained strength every day, and John was so proud of him. Maddie had refused to tell him the condition of Harold’s leg once they’d begun the Healing, but John knew it had been bad. How Harold had lived so long in so much pain was a testament to his courage.

Fireball turned through the gate and John slid off, pulling his nose around to look him in the eye. Not riding him was a sacrifice, but Berren would definitely tell Maddie and Harold. Resting his forehead on Fireball’s, John whispered in Shin’a’in, “Be careful.”

A snort, and Fireball broke away, trotting down the track. John found some fence to lean against, gave Berren a pat on the head, and watched his horse run. Getting him to stop was the trick, but he slowed soon enough and pranced over to John, showing off. Laughing, John swung up on him, and they went to the inn.

Once everyone was clean and fed, he went inside the inn to spend some coin. It was there, after several ales and a sizeable serving of stew that Harold found him. Harold had his cane, but the red in his cheeks meant he’d walked the entire way. He seemed glad to sit, and he had a cautious look on his face.

“I know,” Harold said, but before he could start nagging the serving girl interrupted him. He ordered a wine and a meal, and John waited for the rest of it. Berren slipped under the table, and Harold patted John’s hand. “The Mindhealer said you had to rest, not build stables and race horses.”

Claiming he felt fine wouldn’t work with the lifebond between them. Also, Berren talked far too much. “I watched, didn’t ride him.” John drained his ale, sure he was scowling. “I’m just…” He didn’t know what to say. Goddess, he was tired of being tired.

“Restless. I know.” Harold looked away and then back, as if choosing his words very carefully. “What if your Gift is gone?”

John knew which Gift Harold meant. “We’ll hire someone, I suppose, and I’ll get fat, training my horses all day.” He didn’t believe it, but he refused to worry about what he didn’t know.

“I agree. Tomorrow, after you find Maddie a horse, we’ll leave.” Harold must’ve seen the crazy look John gave him. “You’re not the only one who could use a bit of the open road. We’ll limp down the road together.”

Surging up to his feet, John thrust his empty cup in the air. “A round on me!”

Everyone cheered, and Harold tried to hide his grin. “You could’ve just asked.”

“Sheka, te’sorthene.”

“You think she’ll sleep in the stable tonight?” Harold slipped Betsy a piece of candy.

John swung up on Fireball, determined to ride, not sit on the wagon. “They both will.” He smiled, glad it had worked out.

They’d gone early, coin in Maddie’s fist, and John had thought she looked nervous. Snow’s stablemaster had given the coin a hard look, but John had narrowed his eyes, and the big man had crumbled.

A tour of the stables, and John had been glad he could reassure Harold that Ashkevron horses were superior. However, tucked in the far corner of the stable John found a mare that the stablemaster declared useless, too slow and not big enough to be worth breeding. John had seen the broad forehead and the keen intelligence in her, not to mention her beautiful creamy coat.

Maddie had been tentative. “John?”

“Bond with her. She needs the work and a friend.” John brought her out and asked her to stand. The mare planted her hooves and didn’t move an inch as John circled her, looking for weakness. She was smaller, but not misshapen, and her legs were strong. “I’ll put you up on her.”

“You sure?” Maddie gave her a tentative pat. “No bridle or saddle?”

John tossed her up, and the mare raised her head but didn’t move. Maddie looked worried. “John?”

“You’re fine. I think she’s smarter than you.” John led her forward with a gentle hand under her chin. The stablemaster gave him a look, but John stopped the mare with an easy tone.

Maddie slid off with a big grin. “She’s pretty.”

“She’s not worth a coin,” the stablemaster grumped. “Lord Snow would’ve given her to the Healer.”

John saw an opportunity to save Maddie some coins. “Then you should give Maddie your best riding saddle and bridle, and throw in the halter, lead rope, and a good blanket for winter.”

The stablemaster frowned. “She’ll need the more comfortable saddle.” He rubbed his chin. “Did you buy sweet feed?”

“Not yet.” John hadn’t been sure they’d find the right horse.

Maddie seemed to have gotten over her nerves and was hugging the horse around the neck. “I get to name her!”

The stablemaster open his mouth, and John threw up a hand to stop him. He nodded. “Let’s get her set. Nothing but the best for our Healer.” He gave John his hand. “Good race.”

“Thank you.” John shook the stablemaster’s hand. “That stallion is a terror.”

“That he is. Should’ve gelded him.”

They laughed, and John left Maddie with the mare to help haul tack. It hadn’t taken long to get it all back to their little house, and the stablemaster had promised to send more grain. John was sure the little mare would have a good life.

Harold used his cane and the handholds to clamber up on the wagon. He clucked at Betsy. “Let’s go.”

The mares seemed glad to be moving, and Fireball started prancing. Berren claimed his spot on top of the wagon, and John waved goodbye, not that Maddie or Amy would notice.

They’d follow the river into Haven, the summer was in its last days, sputtering away into Fall. It was a three-day journey, but John had his suspicions that Harold intended to make it last longer. They exchanged a look as they finally left Kettlesmith behind.

Sure enough, Harold stopped right after the sun was at its highest, pulling to a cozy campsite along the river. John stretched his back on Fireball, feeling his horse’s impatience. It was early in the day, but neither Harold nor John felt their best. With a nudge, John took Fireball right into the river, laughing at Harold’s shout.

Fireball swam like he did everything, enthusiastically, and John kept him at it until he could feel a touch of actual fatigue. Only then did he take Fireball to shore, sliding off to swim beside him. The water was cold, and they both gave a good shake.

“You have lost your mind.” Harold handed him a towel.

“No doubt.” John scrubbed at his hair before pulling the tack of Fireball so he could roll if he wanted, and he wanted. “Saddle was dusty.”

Harold had a good start on the camp, and John finished up before taking his wet towel into the wagon to change clothes. He stripped off, hanging his things up to dry, and then was slightly amazed to feel a quick tug on the lifebond. Turning, he smiled when Harold pulled open the door and stepped inside, using his cane.

“You need something?” John brushed his hair back, maybe pushing his chest out a bit. “Harold,” he purred.

“I, ah, bought you something.” Harold looked down, seemingly shy, and John had to touch him, hold him. They hadn’t, not really, not since the surgery. John had been too hurt, and Harold had shaken his head at the mere idea. Harold curled into John, kissing him without prompting, and then digging his front pocket. He pulled out a silver necklace, draping it over John’s head.

The necklace hung to his breastbone and at the bottom dangled a small horse’s bit, beautiful work, and John slipped his finger down it. “Are you bridling me, Harold?”

“Yes.” Harold looked at him through his lashes. “But I’m sure you’ll run with the bit in your teeth.”

John laughed. “Thank you, lifebonded.”

“I also put another trinket on Fireball’s bridle. He supervised, of course.” Harold pulled John into another kiss. “I left off my singlet today.”

“Goddess, you’re practically naked.” John was already working at getting the vest off. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you planned all this just to get me alone.”

Harold smiled. “I do like to plan.” He skimmed one hand down John’s back, trying to distract him, which wasn’t fair. “How is your head?”

“I’m not as tired today.” John could say that truthfully. “But I’m glad we stopped.” He wrested the vest away. “Sirrah, you have me at a disadvantage.”

Laughing, Harold squeezed, making John work so much faster. John groaned as Harold tortured him with touches. It seemed like years later before they managed to get on the bed together. Harold guided John to his stomach. “Let me make you feel good.”

It would be difficult to do nothing, but John couldn’t tell him no. Usually, the lifebond swept them up and it was all a blur. This time, he wasn’t sure what Harold was feeling. Harold rubbed John’s back, smoothing down his sides, and John shivered all over.

“Don’t hurt your leg,” John said, worrying because he couldn’t tell from the lifebond. It was completely quiet after tugging at him.

“I won’t.” Harold made it a promise. “I’m really much better.”

John wasn’t sure what to say. He was so tired, so much of the time, that he’d hoped Harold was healed, but he didn’t know for sure. He caught his breath, thrown out of his thoughts by Harold’s gentle touch.

“May I?” Harold whispered, mouth on John’s skin.

Helpless, unable to speak, John nodded. He hadn’t, not since Jesse, but he remembered. Harold used something slick from a small jar, and John wished fervently they’d put in a bigger bed. Harold steadied him once, and then slid on top, finding his target with no difficulty.

Head spinning, John reached back and locked them together, breathing hard, needing this when he hadn’t known that he did. Harold muttered something about bonds, and John could barely think.

“Can I move?” Harold gently bit John’s ear.

John shifted, finding a bit more space, and dropped his head in a nod. It felt like his entire body was on fire, and when Harold moved, it all spun away from him. “So good,” he whispered, and he seemed to fill with pleasure as he gasped from every movement above.

Digging his head into the pillow, he arched back when Harold took him in hand, somehow managing to do two things at once. “Goddess!”

“John!” Harold worked him through his completion before taking his own pleasure as John lay collapsed, needing nothing more. If bandits attacked, he really didn’t care. He moaned in satisfaction as Harold caressed him and whispered things that John wouldn’t remember.

Falling asleep had never been easier.

Waking up was the hard part. John fell back asleep once while trying to find the floor. Harold wasn’t in the wagon, but John wasn’t worried. Fireball would warn him if there was a problem, not to mention Berren.

Finally, he knuckled his eyes and decided to skip clothes. He’d go wash first. He took a long stretch, left the wagon with a barely concealed stumble, ignored Harold’s rolling eyes, and went to wash in the river. The water felt good, and Harold met him at the shore with another towel and his clothes. John redressed after shaking water on him. Harold glared, and John brought his ringed hand to his necklace before kissing both.

“Stop,” Harold growled.

“Have you been taking lessons from me? That was a credible grumble.” John dressed quickly, deciding against the boots and following Harold back to the camp. Fireball snorted at him, but John ignored him. “Where’s Berren?”

Harold blushed, trying to hide it by moving his chair and sitting down by the fire. “Hunting. He said we were noisy.”

“I put my hand over my mouth!” John said indignantly.

Pointedly not looking at him, Harold cleared his throat and pointed at his head. John laughed and said, “Nothing we can do about that!”

Raising his eyebrows, Harold just looked at him. John decided to avoid that by taking his boots to the wagon and getting the skillet and the tea kettle. His wet saddle was slung over the back wheel, and he’d have to deal with that as well. Anything, really, but he didn’t want to talk about his Gifts, or lack of them.

The Mindhealer had told him to rest, but John hadn’t allowed her to touch him. His thoughts were his own, and it was going to stay that way. Harold had made his disapproval very well-known, without speaking a word. Today was the first day that John had felt the lifebond since the surgery. He was healing. It was enough. It wasn’t as if the Kingdom or his Goddess needed him, at least not right now.

“Do your stretches while I start dinner.” John decided to get a little bossy himself. “And Fireball is watching, so do them all.”

“He can be bribed with candy,” Harold muttered, but he started while John cut up potatoes and carrots, adding some thinly sliced cured meat and a bit of water with flour to thicken. There was bread and cheese. They’d stocked up before leaving Kettlesmith.

That started, John found a rag to clean his saddle before taking it to the sun to dry. The sheepskin cover hadn’t been on, so no harm done. He was about ready for a new one, something with more room for weapons, more like the ones the Shin’a’in used. He’d look for materials when they got to Haven because he’d be making it himself.

Harold groaned, and John went to help him with the last one. Sitting down in the grass in front of him, John massaged the leg thoroughly. The hip was healed, and the twist in the bone was gone, but the muscles were tight, painful. “Does Berren help you with this pain?”

“We’re working on it.” Harold nodded. “I’ll always limp, but he’s hopeful I won’t need a cane much longer.”

“You seem to get around pretty well.” John was so proud of him. “And that cane could be useful in a brawl.”

“I’ll put a sword in it.” Harold saw John’s eyes light up “I was joking.”

“Sounded like a good idea to me.” John checked their dinner, stirring the mixture. He added a bit more flour and saw the water was about to boil. “Did we remember the tea?” He’d be riding back if they’d forgotten it.

“I’ll get it.” Harold eased up and went to the wagon. He took over fussing with the kettle. “I realize that you do far too much around camp. I need to help more.”

“You need to heal.” John wasn’t even discussing it. He hadn’t even started the fire today, being busy with the horses. It felt as if Harold was upset about something, but without the lifebond it was impossible to tell, and John couldn’t help but wonder if he’d done something wrong.

“You do too!” Harold smacked his little chair with his cane in a rare display of temper. “And it’s more than past time to get you a chair of your own.”

John gave the food a stir, squatting on his heels, not understanding what this argument was about. He’d been napping for Goddess sake, and that was rest enough for the middle of the day. “My Shin’a’in soul would shrivel and dry up. At the very most, an elderly woman is allowed a horse blanket.”

Harold sat down and glared at him. “The King’s Own lived a life far, far from the plains.”

Confused and insulted, John got to his feet. Never had Harold spoken so harshly to him. He whistled up Fireball and mounted him. “When you figure out why you’re angry, send Berren for me.”

“John!”

But John was moving back to the road, Fireball trotting, and whatever Harold was yelling, John wasn’t interested in hearing. The wind swirled a few dead leaves, and he did nothing but stare between his horse’s ears. Fireball looked back once or twice, worried about leaving his friends, but John nudged him forward.

Fireball threw up his head and whinnied, and John got the message. He was being an idiot, as Berren liked to say. Disgusted, John took Fireball to the river and slid off, finding a flat rock to sit on and think. He tucked his bare feet under his knees and shut his eyes.

Haven was two days away, or three, if they rested. Harold was scared, not angry. Scared that John would be Chosen again, or just decide that he was done with Harold and his wagon. It didn’t make any sense to John, but he knew it was true.

It didn’t help that he wasn’t able to reach through the lifebond like he’d done in the past. He didn’t even want to try. Maddie and her headache potions were a good distance away, and John would never tell Harold how painful it’d been.

The sun dipped below the horizon, and Fireball whuffled at John’s hair. John let the night steal over him, breathing and wishing he knew what to say to make Harold happy. The silver necklace was heavy around his neck, but he’d never take it off.

:Are you done with your foolishness?:

Berren’s voice was like a whisper on the wind, and John knew he didn’t have any sort of shields up. It was as if his Gift of Mindspeech was tired. John opened his eyes and glanced at him.

“You left him alone?” John had suggested Berren come after him, but he didn’t like it.

:John, two things you need to know. His abilities are so weak that he’s practically head blind, and he’s afraid your bond is broken.: Berren’s tone was distasteful, as if he’d rather not discuss any of this. :And he’s not that far, considering walking down the road to find you.:

“Go tell him I’m on my way.” John hated talking about his feelings, but he’d try for Harold’s sake. Berren disappeared down the road, and John let himself sit a little longer, eyes shut. “Goddess, give me strength.”

She didn’t answer, but the wind kicked up and brushed his hair back. He got to his feet and looked over to see Fireball, rolling in the small patch of sand. “Whenever you’re ready, little brother.”

Fireball surged up and shook. He pranced over and pawed at the ground. John stroked down that long face. “Yes, you’re better than a Companion. Stop showing off.” He swung up on him and wrapped his hands in the red mane. Fireball needed no encouragement to travel back to the wagon and his nightly portion of oats.

Harold wasn’t in sight, but Berren was on top of the wagon, and John turned his attention to the horses first, making sure they were bedded down for the night. Tomorrow, he needed to give the mares a good workout. Going back to the fire, he could see that Harold hadn’t eaten, so he pulled the food out of the coals and took it with him to the wagon.

“John!” Harold gaped at him.

“We should eat.” John was surprised Berren hadn’t helped himself. He got the food in two bowls and sat on the floor to eat. Harold accepted the bowl with thanks and perched on the bed, looking as if he might cry. John scooted around until his back was against Harold’s good leg. “Really. Eat.”

John led by example, finishing his quickly and accepting the portion that Harold didn’t want. He also found some cheese and sliced it up, giving Harold a share. He spent that time preparing his words as carefully as he would hone his sword. Harold opened his mouth twice for something other than food, but he said nothing after John narrowed his eyes at him. Meal finally done, he put everything to be washed and then sat cross-legged in front of Harold.

Harold swallowed hard, and John put his hands on Harold’s knees. That small motion seemed to settle him, and John eased his way to the lifebond, going slow. He could feel the upset, distress, and he ached as he held it close, soothing them both but paying a heavy price for it.

“I love you, Harold.” John took a deep breath. “Not this lifebond, but you. If we weren’t bonded, I’d still follow you to the Forest of Sorrows and back.

“I’m not going to be Chosen, especially since my Gifts are damaged, and I’m far, far too old. I’d like you to meet the Queen. I helped raise her after all, and yes, I still miss Jesse, but I love you. You, Harold Finch of the Ashkevrons.”

Harold’s jaw had slowly come unhinged. He put his hand on top of John’s. “I can feel it,” he whispered. “I thought it was gone.”

John turned the bond loose, feeling drained. “I’m healing.” He put his forehead on Harold’s hand. “Just very weak.”

Harold slid off the bed onto John’s lap, hugging him close. “I love you, John shena Tale’sedrin. I’m sorry I was acting intolerable. What we did, I thought I’d be able to feel the bond, and then I couldn’t, and you were asleep, and I… panicked.”

Dipping his head, John kissed him. “Lifebonds are a pain to manage when one partner is injured, and we’re both still mending. Communication is much harder when the bond is quiet, but believe me, the bond is there.”

“I was scared.” Harold wrapped his hand around John’s neck. “I nearly lost you, and I can’t lose you, not to the Heralds, not to anyone.”

“You won’t.” John held him close. He was certain his Goddess wouldn’t allow that, not again. Time eased away, and John only nudged him back to the bed when he suspected Harold’s leg ached. “Get some sleep. I need to check a few things.”

For a moment, Harold looked as if he might argue, and then he yawned. John kissed him before leaving him to get ready for bed. Feeling as if he’d been punched in the jaw, he made his way to the fire and slumped down to rest.

Berren slipped up next to him. John did nothing but breathe, but he felt the bit of healing coming his way. “Thanks, fur face.”

No answer, but John wasn’t sure he could’ve heard it. He put out the fire, made sure everything was where it was supposed to be, and slipped back inside the wagon. Usually, he’d sleep on top, but he wasn’t sure he had the energy, so he set up his pallet close enough to touch Harold.

“Thank you, te’sorthene,” Harold said.

John blew out the lamp, words clogging his throat. He’d said enough earlier. Closing his eyes, he fell hard into sleep.

“Here. Come now, John, sit up a bit.”

Peeling open an eye, John pushed around until he was sitting more or less, taking the drink from Harold without question. He made a face after swallowing.

“Berren said you needed it.”

The pounding in John’s head meant he wasn’t going to argue about it. Maddie must’ve sent supplies. “Now, drink this at your leisure.”

John took the cider, trying to get his brains to work. “Where are we?”

“Still on the roadside. No hurry, after all.” Harold encouraged him to wiggle up on the small bed. John didn’t argue about it. He finished the cider quickly and shut his eyes, finding comfort in Harold’s hand. Sleep grabbed him again.

***

A sharp neigh brought John out of bed. He put his axe in his hand and a knife in the other and went out the door, eyes sharp for trouble.

“John! A shirt!” Harold came at him from the direction of the horses. “I told Fireball to be quiet. He really doesn’t listen.”

Seeing him brought John to his senses, but he still made sure no one was near. His throat was dry, and his head felt stuffed with cotton. “You’re okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Berren strolled over and put his paw on John’s foot. John looked down at him. “Really?”

Whatever Berren did helped clear the cobwebs. John wandered over to the fire, sat down on his pallet, and helped himself to some tea. His throat cleared, and he pulled a basket of food next to him.

Harold refilled his tea and sat in his chair, and it wasn’t long before Fireball strolled over and extended his nose towards the basket. John glared at him. “You are greedy.” But he handed him some bread to chew.

“He’s completely spoiled.” Harold sounded fond. “Can you imagine him as a stallion?”

“He’d have never left the plains.” John shrugged. He was grateful that Fireball had been sold to the one place John was bound to find him. “Goddess put him in my path.”

Harold eased up and came over to sit by him, stretching out both legs. “Do you need another headache potion?”

Shaking his head, John finished the food and turned so he could put his head in Harold’s lap. Fireball nibbled at John’s bare stomach, and John gave him a stroke down his face. Harold pushed John’s hair off his forehead.

“I’m sorry,” Harold said, resting his hand on John’s chest, over the necklace.

“Stop.” John didn’t want to discuss it ever again. “How’s the leg?”

“Berren and I did the exercises.” Harold continued stroking John’s hair, and John let his eyes flutter shut. “Rest, my dear.”

John managed a grumble, but he was in no rush to get up. “Shouldn’t we travel?”

“It’s not even Fall yet.” Harold leaned enough to kiss John’s forehead. “We need you well.”

The chill of the air woke John up, and Harold made him eat again. John fed his horses after that, apologizing to the mares for their lack of work. He didn’t think they minded. Betsy nudged at him with her big head, and he babied her.

Hidden from Harold’s sight, he took a big stretch and leaned against Fireball. “I hate being this tired.”

Fireball cocked his hoof, lipping at John’s fingers. John brushed him again and wanted to curse at how much energy it took. All he did was sleep. The sun slipped over the edge, and he made sure they had fodder before going back to the fire.

Harold handed him a shirt, and John put it on without complaining. Without speaking, they tidied the camp, left Berren on guard up top, and went inside the wagon together.

“Bed,” Harold said, striping down to his singlet. John didn’t have strength to argue. He crawled on the bed, shocked when Harold clambered on top of him and found a space inside John’s arms. “I need to hold you.”

“Sounds nice.” John found places for his long legs, pulled a blanket over them, and kissed Harold until he fell asleep.

“Ready?” Harold got Betsy moving without waiting for an answer. “There’s a village half a day from here. We can rest there.”

John wasn’t really listening. He was trying to keep Fireball from dashing off. Fireball gave a half-hearted buck, and John threatened him with having to walk the entire way. Harold rolled his eyes at the both of them, and they were traveling again.

“A bath would be nice,” Harold said. “If you get tired, come sit by me.”

“Feeling frisky, Harold?” John teased. “I could take off my shirt.”

“Don’t you dare.” Harold glared at him. “There are women on the road!”

Laughing, John let Fireball dash ahead, swinging him in a big circle to come back up behind the wagon. The roads were starting to fill up, farmers going about, getting ready for Harvest. For the Queen’s sake, he prayed Valdemar had another good year.

It was difficult to believe it had been almost a year since he’d seen Haven. His heart clenched a little at the idea of facing the Queen, his friends, and Rolan. There was no doubt in John’s mind that he was where he belonged, at Harold’s side, helping the people of Valdemar, but convincing the Queen of that might not be easy.

King Jesse still held a place in John’s heart, and he always would. The broken bond was healed, at least it no longer felt like a hole in his soul. He thought of the young Companion, Jayse, and his own Goddess. They’d taught him the lesson that death might snap the bond in half, but as long as John cherished the part that remained in himself, nothing was truly lost.

Jesse was still in this world, and John needed to honor that. Fireball broke into a jolting trot, showing off for a draft horse, pulling a wagonload of goats. John shushed him, giving the farmer a wave in apology.

“Move along, little brother.”

Fireball neighed, and John let him canter back to the wagon. Harold looked over at him. “Berren says you’re overdoing it.”

“Mangy mutt,” John growled, but he nudged Fireball close to the wagon and then popped over to sit by Harold. “Stay close, Fireball.”

“He is amazing.” Harold handed John a canteen. “Cider.”

“Thank you.” John drank, feeling a bit of ache. “How’s the leg?”

“Ready for us to stop. The village is just up ahead.” Harold clucked to Betsy, and she picked up the pace a bit. “Promise me you won’t engage in any scuffles?”

John gave him a horrified look. Harold snorted. “I thought that would be your reaction.”

The village was small, so close to Haven that it was nothing more than a waystation for farmers bringing in livestock. The pens were extensive. The inn was very large, but there were few cottages.

Harold parked the wagon out of the way. “I’m going to put the shop together.”

John nodded, going to barter for fodder for his horses. Fireball stayed by the wagon, not ready for a stall. John shrugged and took care of the rest of his small herd. When he emerged, his heart nearly stopped. There was a group of youngsters, all clustered around Fireball, some clapping and running.

Fireball hadn’t kicked anyone yet, and John didn’t think, he grabbed the thin, blue bond with his horse, not caring if it hurt. Fireball raised his head and snorted, and a stick hit him in the rump, but he held fast.

Waving his cane, Harold seemed to just appear. “You little hooligans leave my horse alone!”

The kids bolted, laughing and yelling, and Fireball turned to go to Harold, eyes big. John finally seemed to get his limbs moving, and he captured the reins as Harold gave Fireball a stern lecture about children, responsibilities, and staying close to the wagon. Fireball put his chin on Harold’s shoulder, as if to apologize.

“Not sure he knows some of those words, Harold.”

Harold dug out a piece of candy for him. “He knows the intent.” And he went back to his wagon. John put his hand on Fireball’s neck, realizing he still had the bond open, and it didn’t hurt. Fireball tucked his forehead into John’s chest, and John froze, not quite understanding.

Energy.

Pure energy, flowing into him, and he shivered, letting Fireball lead the way. When it finally tapered off, the breeze swirled around them, and he swore he heard a woman’s laugh. Opening his eyes, John gently led his trembling horse to a stall and cosseted him until he fell asleep under a blanket, curled up like a newborn foal.

John supposed being a conduit for the Goddess was exhausting.

“Is he okay?” Harold looked worried. “He’s actually sleeping.”

“He’ll be fine.” John offered his arm to Harold, smiling when he took it. “I’m hungry. Want a snack?”

“Please.” Harold was busy soon after, and John went about his usual duties, even finding some bones for Berren.

:You’re projecting.: Berren grumbled at him as he was chomping from his position on top of the wagon. :Your Goddess was tired of waiting!:

“Maybe so.” John sat on the step, sipped his ale, and tentatively reached for his ground and center. His shields flowed up around him, and he felt his shoulders come down a notch. For now, he wanted his thick shields.

Berren grinned at him, and John went to find Fireball’s bridle. It needed work.

When the sun went down, John made sure Harold was tucked away safe in his wagon before kissing him on the forehead and going to the stable. Fireball was still asleep, and John curled up next to him in the hay, claiming part of the blanket.

Four days until the first day of Fall, and they’d be back in Haven. Rolan had called him a coward for running away, and John hoped he had the courage to stride into the throne room and see Morgan in her crown. Not Jesse.

Harold would be at John’s side. John was sure of that. Perhaps, John had run long enough that he was ready to face his friends, face his old life. One thing he was sure of: nothing would keep him off the road. When Harold loaded up his wagon to leave, John would be right beside him.

John wondered if Fireball would groan when he saw Forst Reach again. Smiling, John fell asleep.

Chapter Text

It was the first day of Autumn, and the day was clear and cool. Summer would hang on a little longer, but the harvest was on its way. The road was busy, and John kept a good hold on Fireball.

“Compass Rose, John!”

John nodded, falling in behind the wagon, making Fireball snort. He’d bounced back fast, and his neck was arched as he pranced. He was gorgeous, and he knew it. People pointed at him, and John knew he’d get several offers to purchase. Goddess help anyone who thought to steal him.

They’d be here long enough for John get his supplies for a new saddle, and maybe new reins. He was sure Harold would be busy, leaving John with plenty of time to shop.

Harold pulled Betsy to a stop outside the Compass Rose, and the stablemaster came jogging over.

“Master Harold!”

“Hello, James! Room for my beauties?” Harold grinned.

“Of course!” James had his hands all over Betsy. “Never thought I’d see you without your mules!”

“You can thank my lifebonded for that.” Harold swung down, cane helping to steady him.

John slid off Fireball and planted himself at Harold’s shoulder.

“Shin’a’in,” James whispered, eyes wide. “Welcome to Valdemar, good sir!”

“Thank you,” John said, just managing not to grin. His life as King’s Own was far behind him, and he could scarcely believe that he was happy in his work.

Harold pulled John’s ear close. “Drive a hard bargain. He loves it.”

With a quick nod, John kissed him on the cheek. “Go inside and rest. I’ll be along.”

“Leave the sword in the wagon.” Harold tried to sound fierce.

“I’ll bring my bow then.” John smirked and swaggered to the stablemaster.

“Yes, this shirt is clean.” John tugged a rag from his belt and wiped the mares down, so they were flawless.

“I was going to ask if my blues looked satisfactory.” Harold was nervous, fidgeting. He’d even brushed Berren, who hadn’t appreciated it.

“You look great.” John didn’t glance at him. The guardsman they’d been waiting on, hurried to them and escorted them inside the palace. The mares’ hooves rang on the stone, and the looks they received made John have to hide a smile or two. Finally, they threw open the last double doors and introduced them.

“Uncle John!” Morgan yelped and bolted from the throne, but she was horse smart enough to slow down. “Horses in the throne room?”

“They’re a gift.” John pulled her into a rough hug, ignoring the tear in her eye. “This is my lifebonded, Master Harold Finch, and his bonded kyree, Berren.”

“Lovely to meet you.” Morgan was a perfect queen. “Horses? In my throne room?”

John smiled. “Shin’a’in riding horses. I’m presenting myself on behalf of the Star-Eyed One. I’m Her Envoy in Valdemar now.”

“Uncle John, I’ve been so afraid for you.”

“Master Harold kept me safe.” John escorted her back to her throne and then handed her the leads to the horses. He could feel Harold’s satisfaction through their bond. It made it easier to be here. “Good to see you, Shaw.”

“I thought you were dead,” Shaw said with a grin. “Rolan says hello.”

“My Goddess was upset with him, but it worked out for the best. Thank him for me.” John saw her confused look, but he wasn’t explaining about the healing. He hoped Rolan was doing right by her. “Master Harold and I can’t stay too long.”

“Where will you go? This is your home,” Morgan asked, concern all over her face.

John reached back and linked his hand with Harold’s, connecting their energies and making the lifebond sing. “We take our home with us. I’ll be around the kingdom, Queen Morgan. There are always people who need help.”

“You’ll stay for Court Dinner, of course, advise me on your travels.” Morgan smiled, and John saw Jesse again. He would be so proud of her, and John’s heart ached.

“Berren would be disappointed if we didn’t,” John said, managing a rough smile. “Now, I’ll take these beauties to your stable, and Master Harold wants to meet with several other masters. Thank you, my queen.”

“And thank you, Envoy, and Master Harold, Berren.” Morgan handed the leads back to him. “Shaw, if those horses have a problem, make sure someone cleans it up, and Uncle John, thank you. They’re lovely.”

John let Harold and Berren lead the way out of the throne room. The horses seemed very happy when they went through the last door to the outside. John gave them a pat and tossed the lead ropes over their necks. They’d follow him anywhere. He wasn’t worried.

“John?” Harold caught him by the arm. “Thank you.”

“I have no idea what for.” John stepped closer and dipped his head to speak softly. “Thank you. I couldn’t have made it without you.”

“You underestimate yourself.” Harold smiled. “I’ll be seeing the Headmaster. There’s a young lady with the unusual name of Root who has an invention I simply must see. I’ll come get you before dinner.”

“Please do.” Harold and Berren set off into the Collegium. John paraded his horses toward the stable, making sure to put on a show with them in the pasture, making them dance and weave around him. Trainees and Heralds began to gather, and he put his mares through their paces, showing off their skills.

“Herald John!” It was Captain Fusco, hurrying up to the fence. “Is one of them mine?” he shouted.

“Ask the Queen.” John made the mares line up and follow him to their new stalls. Stable boys pounced on them, treating them like queens, and John was sad to give them up. But they’d do well here, not just pushing a wagon all day!

Weaponmaster, Fusco, and a dozen other of his friends crowded around him, and he started giving out hugs and back thumps, mostly in apology for the way he’d left. “It’s just John, or Envoy, now. My Goddess has put me to work.”

“She recognizes talent,” Hersh said with a grin. “Did you see Shaw?”

“I did.” John looked out over Companion’s Field like he’d done so many times before, and as usual, there was no sign of Rolan. It should’ve hurt more, but John had moved on from that part of his life. What he did see was a small, white colt racing toward him, and he was sure his face broke from grinning. “Jayse!”

:John friend!:

John left the foal his pride, but it was tempting to scoop him up and hug him. Instead, John knelt and folded him in close. Jayse pressed his forehead into John’s, and there was one pure moment where John felt the colt’s happiness.

“You drink plenty of milk?” John stroked his hands over him, and the colt was perfect, if still a bit small.

:Mama says I drink her dry!:

Laughing, John saw the shocked looks on the faces of his friends, especially Fusco. John tugged Jayse’s forelock straight and got to his feet. “I have to tell everyone the story of how you came into this world.”

Jayse nodded and pranced, going up on his hind legs before racing off to find his mother.

“He’s a little bugger,” Fusco said, but he was smiling. “Word is that bit of nothing pulls Rolan’s tail at least once a day!”

“Good.” And John let it all heal. The scab over that wound sloughed off, and he took a breath that came from his soul. The Goddess had blessed him, and he could do this, be in this place. Jesse would want that. “You should see the horse I managed to steal away from Lord Ashkevron.”

“Shin’a’in thief,” Fusco said, smirk on his face.

Everyone laughed, but only after John did. John felt his shoulders relax. This wasn’t home, not any longer, but these were his friends.

“Alright, let’s go find some ale, and I want all the gossip.” John let them bunch around him, and they all went towards the main dining hall. He didn’t look back again.