Jisa’s daughter stared at him with sharp grey eyes. “You’re woolgathering again, Bard Stefen.”
Raising an eyebrow, he reined in his horse to parallel hers. “Alara, I cupped your newborn neck in my hands. I watched you patter around in bare feet, taught you your first song, and sponsored your entry into Bardic. When did I become ‘Bard Stefen’ to you?”
She shrugged. “When Hedren sent us out here, he warned me to treat this as formally as any Journeyman mission, despite my ‘family connections,’ as he called them.” The corners of her lips threatened to quirk in a smile, but she kept her expression steadily serious. “I intend to earn my rank.”
Stefen sighed theatrically. “Trapped by formalities to engage solely in nonsense conversation. How would your mother feel about this?”
“My mother did not want me going anywhere with you to begin with, so I’m sure she’d be entirely displeased.” Now the smile burst unchecked. “You should have seen her face when I told her you were to be my Master Bard.”
“Mmm,” he murmured noncommittally. He, for one, was not pleased about Hedren’s arrangements, and understood Jisa’s concerns. Alara was the most promising apprentice Bardic had had in years, demonstrating a poetic capacity for composition far beyond any of her teachers’. Perhaps even beyond my own—I’m stronger in Gift and Musicianship than Composition, always have been. Her brilliance is entirely in the words; her Gift is minor and her Musicianship only moderate… but the words are what matter most. Some of her songs she wrote as a mere apprentice were already sung by Masterbards, himself among them.
Hedren had pulled Stefen aside when she was ready to move to Journeyman status, and threatened him with demotion if he did not finally “shoulder his responsibilities as Haven’s greatest Bard in generations.” He claimed nobody else could take her on the trip; I was the only one who could even begin to offer her lyric advice. Telling him I was unfit to guide the younger generation due to slight mental instability was not effective… In fact, Hedren had accused him of skirting responsibility and courting death for the sake of personal glory. Stefen had nobly restrained his laughter and answered that he had, indeed, courted death at times, but certainly not for personal glory… not that Hedren would believe me. Personal glory is his middle name. Regardless, it was a rumor that would not have helped my higher purpose. So now here he was, taking Jisa’s youngest on the latest apprentice rotation, which just happened to be a tour of the Northern border towns. I’m not allowed to believe in coincidence. Something else is at work here…
“Woolgathering. To engage in fanciful daydreaming, if you wanted the definition.” Alara cocked her head and tossed long, white-blonde hair over her shoulder. Where that comes from, no one could say. Some odd gene of Treven’s.
“Thank you, child,” he replied, mock-swatting her from his horse. “We’ll see if you always live in the moment when you get to be my age.”
She laughed. “You’re only a year older than Mother, at most. Barely into your middling years.”
“Two years older, and much more worn down from having to listen to uncivilized Trainees such as yourself.” He paused, turning toward her with a quizzical look. “Why are you suddenly so eager for conversation?” Alara was exceptionally introverted; the sort of child who puzzled the world out on her own terms, never letting outsiders know just what she was thinking. The most like Van… He stopped the thought and sighed to himself. Very badly, he wanted to only see Jisa’s loveliest daughter for herself, but she had such remarkable traits of Vanyel’s that he couldn’t help the comparisons. Another reason I did not want to go on this journey. She makes me melancholy in ways that inhibit my capacity for ordinary conversation.
“I suppose I’m not, usually. But having not spoken in two candlemarks, with the signs of civilization growing sparser at every crossroads, I’m beginning to fear for my sanity if I don’t reach out to you.” She paused thoughtfully. “And for yours.”
“Mine is long gone, dearling,” he said with a small, unintentionally sad smile. “We’ll be at the town soon. Not many Valdemarans actually choose to live this far North, especially with Sorrows having the reputation it does these days.” He knew these towns better than anyone: back when he still believed he might be able to call Vanyel’s spirit out from the forest, he used to haunt the border villages at springtime, right when he was allegedly returning from his latest mission. His haunting had brought him nothing except dashed expectations, and his self-torture had been an excellent lesson in the dangers of hope.
Then came the war, and the endless years of commissions South. With the surprising advent of peace, he’d not known quite what to do with himself, save that going North with thoughts of reunion could destroy the treasured bits of sanity he had left. And now here I am, twenty years after Crookback Pass, feeling as nervous as a teenager leaving home for the first time. He shook his head. No matter how hard I try to tell myself Van won’t be there, some part of me still believes.
“It’s the sense of the places, too,” she said after a moment. “The heaviness, as if no one has felt happy since the autumn months hit and the hours of daylight lessened. Even the trees seem to be stooped, kneeling, begging the sun to return.”
He smiled. “The Forest has its name for a reason.”
She rolled her eyes in an oh-so-exasperated teenage manner. “The Forest has its name because the great Herald-Mage Vanyel Ashkevron died there and everyone still acts as if it were the greatest disaster to ever befall Valdemar.” Then she paused and covered her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry, Uncle Stef…”
Managing a minor chuckle, he replied, “And there goes formality. You wouldn’t understand; your generation is the first in a long time to reach adulthood and not be promptly thrust onto the battlefield.” She just found out a year or two ago why I cared so much about a dead hero, I certainly don’t expect her to particularly understand at sixteen. A virginal sixteen, to boot. He’d never thought of Jisa as the over-protective type, but parenthood changed people. Gods know Tran turned into a mother hen when he finally married and produced little ones of his own, and that’s the oddest shift imaginable.
An awkward silence sat between them for a moment, until he spotted a thin line of smoke rising over the treetops.
“Look, Alara,” he said, bringing his horse close to hers and pointing. “A return to civilization!”
She followed his finger with her eyes before looking back at him. “Do you think it’s the town we were supposed to play at next?”
“I’m sure of it.” He smiled warmly. “They didn’t send me with you for nothing; I’m more familiar with these parts than most.” Pausing thoughtfully, he took a closer look at his surroundings. “Yes, it must be Easthaven. Another candlemark and we’ll be in the village.”
“A real bed.” Alara’s entire face lit up. “And people to play for!”
He nodded his agreement. Should I be ashamed that I’m as eager as a teenage girl for a warm bed and company? I thought the war had toughened me more than that, but the cold and solitude are a different kind of torture. Kind as Alara was, she was not really adult company, and he certainly felt uncomfortable sharing personal information with her. Small talk is fine, and of course I’d be there for her were anything to happen, but the generational gap is a bit hard for me to bridge these days. He was certain she felt the same, and shy as she was, it was difficult for her to even make conversation with those her own age. When she was younger, it was so easy to play or find silly things to discuss. But ever since that conversation about Vanyel… he almost shuddered just thinking about it. He’d never been embarrassed about being shaych, nor hid it, but trying to explain his romantic relationship with a dead male hero to Alara had been… beyond uncomfortable. I could have killed Jisa for dragging me in there. I guess she felt Alara should hear it from the horse’s mouth.
He looked up as they rounded the bend and the thatched roofs of Easthaven came into clear view. Assessing the state of fatigue of their horses, he shot Alara a mischievous glance. “Race you to the sign post?”
She nudged her horse into a canter in response.