Eliani gazed at the snow-capped peaks to the north, though she knew that one day's travel was not enough to bring her within sight of Midrange Peak. Riding as swiftly as the horses could bear, they might hope to reach Midrange on the third or fourth day.
Her thoughts flew to the pass there, where not long since she had stood looking down at an army of kobalen gathering on the plains west of the mountains. Remembered dread at that discovery filled her heart.
Only once before had kobalen massed in such great numbers: the Midrange War, five centuries since. A battle loomed, one that Eliani must take care to avoid.
She frowned, torn between a wish to raise her sword in defense of ælven lands and the knowledge that she had a more important task. Only she could perform it, and so she must avoid being caught in the fighting. She must hasten north as swiftly as possible, hoping to get beyond Midrange before the kobalen came through the pass.
Her mare balked, catching her anxious mood. She stroked its neck to soothe it, then turned to the captain of her escort.
"A gallop, Vanorin? Let them stretch their legs before nightfall?"
The captain gazed back, his dark Greenglen eyes and pale hair reminding her of her newly handfasted partner, Turisan. "A brief gallop. These mounts must last us to Highstone."
Eliani's mare tossed its head, and she tightened the rein a little to curb it. "The outpost at Midrange might be able to give us fresh horses."
"We cannot rely on that."
Eliani shrugged. "A gallop will not ruin them. It is not long until sunset."
The sun was indeed westering, and deep blue shadows were rising up the slopes of the Ebon Mountains to their left. The party would soon have to stop for the night.
Having heard no outright objection from Vanorin, Eliani drew her mount to the outside of the road, and with a loose rein invited it to run. The mare obliged eagerly, and the others followed.
Twenty-one horses thundered northward behind her. Eliani grinned, reveling in the wind that whipped at her hair, the sharp chill of winter in her nostrils.
For a short time she held the lead, then Vanorin and two others of the Southfæld Guard passed her. She felt an urge to race them, to fight her way to the fore again, but she knew they had moved ahead only to protect her.
A roan gelding drew up beside her. She risked a glance at its rider, Luruthin: her clan-brother, one-time playfellow, first lover. His green eyes flashed at her in glee. She shifted her gaze back to the road ahead, her heart uneasy. She knew Luruthin had been disappointed by her handfasting with Turisan, though he seemed to bear it well. A part of her felt badly for ending his hopes. Granted, she had done nothing to encourage them for two decades, but Luruthin was her kin and she still cared for him very much.
Eliani, I am going-
Startled, she jerked upright, unintentionally tightening her reins. Her mount reared, nearly colliding with Luruthin's. Shouts of alarm rose behind them, and Eliani's horse, nervous already, chose to bolt.
The mare left the road, running instead on the verge that banked the Silverwash, passing Vanorin and the other guardians as if fleeing from attack. The animal's hooves flew over the dry grass. The river flashed by on her right, much too near for comfort.
The horse had its neck stretched near flat, ignoring Eliani's attempts to rein it in. She kept low over its withers, clinging with her knees.
Khi, use khi to calm it.
She dared not loose her hold on the reins, but pressed her fisted hands against the horse's neck, and concentrated on blending her own khi with the animal's. As she opened her awareness she felt its terror, the blind fear that told it to run, and had to calm her own response.
Focusing on her soul's center, she brought her khi forward, filling her mind with a white-gold glow of peace. Gently, she sent this into the animal's thoughts, turning them to comfort, to safety, warm pasture and the company of other horses. Safe in the herd, no danger. The mare's panic ebbed, and Eliani breathed relief as it slowed to an easier lope.
Hoofbeats pounded behind her. She took her reins in one hand and held up the other in warning; she had no wish for the mare to be startled again. Vanorin's voice called out, and the riders behind her dropped back, allowing her room to bring her wayward mount to a halt.
"Easy, now. Gently, gently."
The mare slowed to a trot, then a walk, then stopped, its sides heaving. Eliani found she was breathing nearly as hard.
She patted the animal's neck. "That was a better run than I expected of you. I should enter you in the festival races next spring."
The horse blew, and turned its head toward the river. Eliani dismounted, seeking the comfort of standing on the ground. Her hands shook a little as she drew the reins over the mare's head. She stroked the satiny neck, feeling the heat beneath the mare's golden coat.
Vanorin and a handful of guardians rode up to her at a walk. The mare greeted the other horses with a whinny, then nuzzled one of them.
The captain's tone was not quite accusing. Eliani bit back a sharp reply.
"I was distracted."
"My lady, you must be more cautious-"
"It was not lack of caution."
"The Council has charged me with your safety, Lady Eliani. I dare not risk losing you to some accident-"
"Yes, yes. I will make certain they know that you are all solicitude."
"-or to a raider's dart. We do not know if there might be kobalen nearby."
She raised an eyebrow. Vanorin served in Southfaeld's Guard, he should know better than she how likely they were to encounter kobalen in this realm, but she was skeptical.
In her own realm of Alpinon, attacks of kobalen against remote villages or travelers dropped sharply in winter. The creatures disliked the cold, so she would ordinarily assume that they were even less often seen in the south. Of course, these were not ordinary times.
She drew a careful breath. "I will be more cautious."
When he did not answer at once, she turned and led her horse toward the river, as much to get away from the captain as to calm the animal. Vanorin did not deserve her temper-he was only performing his duty-but she chafed at the unfamiliar constraint of being escorted by twenty of Southfæld's Guard. She was a guardian herself, and accustomed to freedom of action.
She found an eddy where the horse could drink safely, and sat on the riverbank watching it, willing her pulse to slow. Greenleaf trees surrounded her, their gray branches all but bare in early winter. A few traces of green remained in the grass at the water's edge, but the land was falling quiet.
After a moment she ran a hand through her hair, then closed her eyes. She drew deep breaths, quelling the fear of her still-new gift that lingered in her heart. This was why she was here; it was who she now was. A mindspeaker.
Immediately his khi filled her mind; his presence, his love nearly overwhelming her.
Eliani-I was worried. Why would you not speak to me?
I was riding. You startled me, and my horse bolted.
My love, forgive me!
She felt his alarm and chagrin, and wished she had been less abrupt. No harm done. What did you wish to tell me?
She sensed hesitation on his part, a slight withdrawal. When he spoke he seemed guarded.
That I am going to the garrison before the Council convenes. Does Vanorin have any message for Berephan?
I am not near him at the moment. I will ask him shortly.
She waited, but Turisan said no more. She could still feel him at the edges of her mind, the tingle of his khi blending with her own. Amazing, that she sensed him as though they were together, when he had remained in Glenhallow. So far their gift had not diminished with distance. It seemed their mindspeech would prove as powerful as the Ælven Council had hoped.
Silence stretched between them, more awkward by the moment. Eliani could think of nothing to say. They were still strangers, in some ways. Lovers, yes, but only newly so. Handfasted a night ago, and now parted because of the gift that had brought them together.
She rode north, carrying urgent messages to the governor of Fireshore. Their mindspeech would allow the answer to be returned in an instant, instead of in another thirty-odd days of riding.
This was but the first day of her journey. The first day, also, of her formal partnership with Turisan. Not the most comfortable beginning.
She opened her eyes and saw her horse standing by the riverbank, nibbling at the long grasses that overhung it. Rising, she caught its reins and coaxed it out of the water, leading it to where Vanorin and the others waited.
Luruthin was beside the captain, his nut-brown hair standing out against the sea of pale-haired Greenglens. He crooked an eyebrow at her, but said nothing. Eliani gave him a brief smile, then went to Vanorin.
"Turisan is on his way to the garrison in Glenhallow. He asks if you have any message for Lord Berephan."
Vanorin blinked, then shook his head. "No, my lady. Please give him my thanks, though."
She nodded, then turned away to gaze toward the river. Turisan-Vanorin thanks you, but he has no message for Berephan.
Very well. Will you be riding on?
Until nightfall, I expect. We are anxious to make good progress.
I will not disturb you again, then. Speak to me when you have halted for the night, if you would.
She caught herself nodding, and glanced over her shoulder, self-conscious. No one seemed to be watching, though. Luruthin was searching for something in his saddle packs.
Turisan. . . .
She flinched, angry with herself. She was behaving like a moonstruck child.
A gentle warmth filled her; Turisan's love, easing her heart, and making it ache at the same time. Spirits watch over you, my love.
He was gone. The warmth, the delicious disturbance of his khi, withdrawn. Suddenly she felt colder.
She turned and mounted her horse. The guardians made haste to do likewise. Eliani guided her mount toward Vanorin's.
"Do we ride on?"
He swung easily into his own saddle, and bowed slightly. "If my lady is not tired."
She stifled a laugh, and gravely returned his bow. "Lead on, then."