This fifteenth anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Lackey herself.
The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom's ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all ages--and all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talents--combined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and more--make them indispensable to their monarch and realm. Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.
Release date: December 7, 2021
Print pages: 368
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"Are you ready?" Taelor asked, swinging her sword in arcs small enough to not rip the top of the tent as she brought the blade around. "I bet I'll get more of those Karsite bastards than you will."
Eranel shook his head and rolled his eyes, his hands moving over his weapon's edge in smooth, practiced motions. He had been through the routine enough that he didn't need to watch where his fingers went to keep from nicking them on the sharpened metal.
"You're a fool," he said.
Taelor stopped at the end of her swing, tip of the weapon pointed toward the tent flap. Despite her recent exercise, the blade didn't waver. Her strength would last through hours of training, and it had carved her athletic form out of stone. "You think I'm a fool? You're the one sharpening your sword for something like the twentieth time this week. Here's a tip: for it to get dull, it actually needs to cut something."
"'Taking care of one's gear is of critical importance-'"
Taelor jumped in with the second half of the quote. "-'Lest you be caught unawares on the battlefield.' I swear, it's like you don't remember we had the same tutors, were in the same bloody classes! But the time for study is over! We're finally going to get our chance to make our parents proud. Our first battle."
She twirled the blade, rolling her wrist as she pivoted on the ball of her front foot, swinging around to point the weapon at her companion. The tip of it hovered less than a hand's width away from his nose. She looked down the edge of it and smirked. Until the top of her dark hair fell in front of her face and she huffed at it to blow the straight strands back.
In that moment, Eranel leaned back and flicked his sharpening stone at Taelor. She jerked to the side, moving her hand to protect herself from the projectile, bringing her weapon off target. With a smooth but powerful motion, Eranel brought his sword around in a full arc, smacking the flat of it against Taelor's blade, knocking it out of her loose grip and into the dirt. Eranel stepped on it without so much as getting up. He had a strength and frame to match hers, as if they were both carved from the same marble.
"What was that about being caught unawares?" he asked, a grin teasing the corner of his mouth.
"This isn't a battlefield," Taelor said as she crouched down to snatch her weapon. He let her have it without a fight. She stood up and tucked it away. "But I'll give you that one. That was good. Luckily I don't think the Karsite army'll be chucking whetstones."
"You never know. They are savages, after all."
The friends shared a brief laugh before Taelor left the tent. Eranel gave his blade a final examination after wiping it down with an oiled rag. It shined enough like a mirror that he could see his blue eyes in the flawless surface. His own light hair was trimmed short in the front to keep it out of the way.
His mind wandered back to the stories of what Karse had done, of the slaughter of his people, of how they had grown bolder and more violent over his lifetime. All those moments, even before he was born, leading up to this, his chance to exact some vengeance from those who dared to attack Valdemar. The skin around his eyes tightened for a moment before he slammed the blade into its scabbard hard enough to make the fittings rattle.
No, the Karsite army was unlikely to throw stones their way, but Eranel wouldn't put anything beyond them. He'd seen the cruelty they were capable of firsthand, having seen the refugees coming to his home.
With quick jerks, he pulled his hair into a tight braid behind his head. It wasn't fashionable, but it would keep it out of his face. The attention he paid to it was a minuscule fraction of that which he paid to his gear. Standing up, he made sure everything was in its proper position, giving his armored shirt a tug to make sure it was tied firmly in place.
Moving to the tent flap, he pulled it aside and stood at the opening, looking out on the campground near the edge of what would soon be a glorious battle. Lines of small tents stretched across the ground, most of them for one or two people, like his own. Farther in the distance stood the medical tent, its green banners flapping in the breeze to help it stand out from the others. Healers would be there, prepping for the work they would have to do for those unfortunate enough to fall but still fortunate enough to survive. He did not envy the work they would have without the opportunity to experience the glory of the battle itself.
Turning to the south, he marched to where his company had been ordered to gather. Taelor was already there, joking with some of the other soldiers and taking bets over how successful they would be. Most of their company was fresh and had yet to see a real battle. Sure, they had taken part in war games as a company, but that was different.
Eranel heard the voice of his tutor in his head. "When the real battle starts, when that blood flows, many will find that the first scream of pain will freeze their knees. This is where true warriors are born, those who rise above this fear and conquer it. You will be afraid, and anyone who says they're not is either a liar or has never seen battle before. Accept this now, or no amount of training shall save your hide."
Eranel clenched his jaw at the memory, and his hand went to the hilt of his sword, tightening around it hard enough to make the leather creak. He nodded to the other members of his company, staying on the edge, with his attention focused inward rather than on those around him. He recited the litany of Karsite crimes in his head. He deliberately forced himself to remember those who had lost their homes and family to these barbaric invaders. With those memories rushing through his body, it took a deliberate act of will to force himself to unclench his hand from his weapon. He longed for his chance to strike back at these beasts that could not even be considered human.
The trumpet blasts jerked him out of his mental wandering, pulling him back into the moment with razor-sharp clarity. The company gathered themselves, standing shoulder-to-shoulder three lines deep. They were part of the left flank, forming up and waiting for the moment to be called into battle.
The sun beat down with unrelenting force, despite only being a few fingers above the horizon. Across the field, the Karsite army stood in their own formation. They marched across the ground, and the steady beat of their drums could be heard, sounding like the heartbeat of some monstrous beast.
The commander shouted orders, but the words barely registered in Eranel's mind. He marched forward, joining the pace and cadence of the brothers and sisters to his side. They maintained a steady pace, attempting to maneuver around the Karsite army's flank.
A host of arrows flew out from the Karsite army, looking like a flock of birds as they arced over and dropped into the center of the Valdemar forces. Screams echoed across the field, merging into battle screams as both forces charged toward each other. More clouds of sleek, deadly birds flew through the sky in both directions, each met with its own collection of shouts. One of the soldiers beside Eranel faltered, and he picked the man up by the armpit, helping him stay in formation. Their company picked up the pace, jogging across the field and attempting to reach the area where the two forces met in a mad frenzy.
The din of the shouting and the clash of the weapons drowned out any hope of hearing any more orders. Eranel found his voice joining the wordless scream of fury as the company charged toward the battle. They crashed forward like a wave and, like water, broke up and scattered as they struck the shields of the Karsite line that turned to face them.
Eranel swatted a blade aside and drove his shoulder into a shield, attempting to pass through the guard and make room for his companions. He brought his blade up in time to deflect a blow that left his arms trembling from the force. Rather than hold his ground, he ducked forward and rolled, coming around and springing up without hesitation.
"Only a corpse rests on the ground."
His weapon snaked out, the heavy blade slicing through a spear shaft, disarming the Karsite warrior. Before he had a chance to follow up the blow, Eranel had to pull his shoulder back to keep it from being sliced open by one of the curved blades of the savages. He glanced to his right and saw only Karsite colors-the rest of his company had failed to penetrate the shield line.
"The waiting blade cannot strike that which does not stand still."
Eranel moved like a whirlwind, spinning round and swatting away blades whenever he saw them. He danced across the ground, staying on the balls of his feet and never keeping in one place for the space of a breath. His movements flowed from one stance to the next, staying just ahead of those who attempted to strike him. True, he didn't manage to land more than a couple of small scratches, but that was also all he received. In that moment, survival was more important than attacking.
Despite his best efforts, when he glanced back, his company and the shield line appeared at least as far away as before. They couldn't possibly be pushed back, could they? He redoubled his efforts, sweat pouring down his face from the effort and the sun that cared little for his movements. One Karsite warrior got too close, and he slammed his pommel into the man's ribs, forcing him away but not before he found a gap in Eranel's armored shirt.
"Your wounds shall not give you pain in the battle, but they will bring you down. Be aware of them, always."
As he forced a Karsite back with a sweeping cut, Eranel paid attention to the scratch. He registered the blood wetting his side, but he could still take a deep breath. It would slow him down if he wasn't careful, but for now it was survivable.
As someone lunged at him, Eranel defended against the thrust and snapped his armored foot into the soldier's knee. Metal struck bone with a sickening crunch and the soldier fell, his shrill cry piercing the sound around Eranel and making him stumble as he danced away.
His foot snagged on something, and he fell backward, rolling over his shoulder as his teacher's words reminded him that his death awaited him if he stopped moving. As he came around, he recognized the face of the man he had helped in the first charge. Blood coated his slashed throat, and his eyes were open wide and blank.
Eranel's knees wobbled, and his legs moved as if they were swirling through ankle-deep mud. His arm shook as he reached up to deflect a blow, not giving it enough distance to clear his body. The sword edge bit into his arm, and he hissed as he pulled back, trying to retreat to the rest of his company. He didn't dare look back and pull his attention away from those around him.
One of the Karsite soldiers attacking him stumbled over another corpse, and Eranel took advantage of the opening to jump back, taking several quick steps toward his companions. In that brief moment of respite, he became painfully aware of the sheer number of people lying around him, most of them unmoving. It felt like a matter of seconds, but so many had already fallen. And in that moment of awareness, the screams and cries of those who still clung to life, often in vain, pierced through his adrenaline-induced focus.
The soldier in front of him scrambled up and thrust before he had his full weight underneath him. Eranel's instincts kicked in, and he circled his blade over, smacking the weapon to the ground and disarming the soldier. He shifted his weight and brought his pommel around, striking the soldier's helmet hard enough to make his arm reverberate with the impact.
The blow knocked the Karsite to the ground, lying on his back with his elbows in the churned mud to prop himself up. Eranel brought his weapon around and moved forward to thrust, the tip of his weapon even with the soldier's exposed throat.
He froze, the weapon trembling in his hand, the tip almost touching the soldier's bare skin. When the Karsite swallowed, he grazed himself.
Eranel looked the Karsite in the eyes, unable to move forward. These were barbarians, evil creatures that brought chaos and death wherever they went. They needed to be stopped.
But he recognized that fear in those eyes. This was not the look of a beast or a demon. This was a man, hurt and afraid. A man, like him.
"Not every warrior is a killer."
A scream sounded from behind him, and he whipped around. He recognized Taelor in a small clump of members from his company. They were all but surrounded by Karsite soldiers. Eranel sprinted forward, charging into the line from the back, yanking a Karsite off-balance. Another soldier turned to face him, and Eranel acted without thinking, driving his blade into the soldier's gut.
The Karsite released his weapon, moving to grip Eranel's wrist in both hands as he fell back. The two men had their faces almost touching as they dropped to the ground, the Karsite's grip too strong for Eranel to pull away. The stranger stared at him in horror as tears streamed from his wide eyes and he shook with shuddering breaths. Eranel tugged on the sword, his brow creased as he yanked at it. It made a sickening, sucking sound as it came free, only matched by the man's gurgle as he struggled to breathe.
Eranel stumbled back, his sword tip dragging through the dirt as he backpedaled from the corpse. He couldn't stop staring at the body. He never saw the attack, just felt the blade slide through his side and get wrenched out with a force that jerked him to the ground. Warmth spread through his midsection, and the trumpet blasts and shouting voices grew ever more distant as darkness closed in on all sides.
Eranel woke with a start and screamed, reaching out to ward off the weapons falling all around him. He kicked and flailed wildly as strong hands gripped his wrists and ankles and forced him down onto the bed. He continued to jerk against the restraints, knowing he needed to move. If he didnÕt move, he would die. He couldnÕt just lie there.
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