She lay curled on her side. Breathe in, breathe out. Listen to the rasp of each inhalation, the slight bubble of the exhalation. The pain had long ago turned to numbness, she knew if she moved it would return, so she laid motionless, barely breathing, waiting. Eventually they would remember her and it would start again. They would make her move, make her do chores or submit to another beating. The only thing she could do was wait for it to begin and enjoy the numbness the cold brought to her limbs.
“Are you certain it is this house, Sir? They do not have any young children that I am aware of.”
“Yes, this is where the Companion says she is. Now please, can we go, the child is in pain.”
“Oh yes, of course. It is a farm on the edge of town.”
After fighting their way past the two men and a shrieking woman, all denying that there was a child there, he began searching the cabin. It was a wooden box next to the dark, ash filled fireplace where he found her. She lay curled in a tight ball, rags stained with blood. Gesturing for the healer, he stepped away from the box. The three adults watched him back with steely eyes. They felt no remorse. He was glad he had the power to make them speak the truth; the truth spell would show just how dark and twisted their minds truly were. “Can they be taken in for questioning? I want to get the girl back to town for more healing. Can she be moved?” He directed the last question to the healer tending the child.
“Honestly, this is beyond my ability. She has been starved for most of her life, bones broken and never set, whip marks and burns across her arms, chest and back. There is not a part of her body that is not bruised, scarred, or bleeding. I can get her stable to bring back to town but she will need more healing than I can give. If we can bring in a healer or two to get her stable to travel and take her back to the capital she might make it. But there is little I can do here. We are going to need some strong backs to move this box because we cannot move her out of it yet. She has some spinal damage.”
The man cursed and watched as the abusers were pulled from the cabin by the guard.
She lay drifting until something jarred her, drawing a cry from her lips. She could hear men talking and bird song. When did she get outside? Struggling she opened her eye only to be blinded by sun. Blinking her vision cleared enough to show a large blue eye watching her. The blue seemed to expand and swallow her as a voice, whispered, “There you are, rider. Sleep now, I will guard you.” A swell of comfort filled her as darkness dragged her deep.
“It’s fine. Cassius has bonded with her and will make sure she sleeps till we get her in a real bed.”
It was nearly an hour later before they managed to get the box into the guard post’s healer’s room.
She came awake slowly, reluctantly. She had enjoyed the sunlight and green grass field she had walked in her dreams. Accompanied only by a horse named Cassius, who was both a horse and not one, who had spoken of the world, what were companions, and where her place would be in all of it. He had also promised from then on she would never be alone, he could not promise that she would never be hurt again, but she would never be alone through it again. Through all his stories and explanations she made him answer that again and again. She would never be alone again, Cassius would be there for her, and the pain would be shared. She did not want to return to the reality of chores and raised voices to be endured alone.
Voices pulled her from this last drifting doze. She lay on a soft surface under heavy blankets, warm. She could not ever remember feeling this warm. She hated winter and fall for the biting ache it brought to her limbs.
The voices droned on as she reveled in the warmth. Tentatively she flexed her fingers, panic speared through her mind as she came fully awake. Her hands did not hurt. The sharp stab of arm, legs, and back were gone. Yes, the small aches remained but they were so
insignificant compared to before.
-So you are finally awake.-
The voices continued to babble on, taking no notice of the voice addressing her, who said that?
-I did, Cassius, and if you ever manage to wake up you can talk to Herald Morgan, the one who fetched you for me.-
Cassius, a companion, a herald, the long dream of the meadow flooded her mind, struggling to sift through it all panic made her breath hitch again.
-Do not fight it so, I will tell you all of it again. We have the entire winter to learn about each other before you go to study at the capitol.-
-Will you come with me when I go? – She asked. The voice took on a tone of delight as it seemed to beam behind her eyes.
-What a quick learner! Yes, I promised you, never alone, where you go, I go.- Again she was flooded with a warm sensation of care and affection, better than the blankets that surrounded her.
-Now will you open your eyes and speak with Herald Morgan and Healer Bryant?- -Yes. – She thought with a small sigh. Opening her eyes, she shifted so she could see the two men seated to her left.
“There she is. How are you, my dear?” The girl blinked at him. -How am I what? – She asked Cassius. Her mind rang with soft laughter. -He wants to know how you feel. If you are in any pain.-
She pushed the blankets off a bit and pushed herself upright in bed ignoring the healer’s cries to stay still. She was wearing an over large white shirt which hung off one shoulder, the sleeves covering her hands.
The healer reached out slowly, explaining what he was doing as he placed pillows behind her back and rolled the sleeves up to reveal her hands.
-Why is he acting so strange? – She asked watching the man with a frown as he bustled around the room. Muffled laughter sounded in her mind again.
-He is afraid he might scare you. Sometimes children treated as you were do not like to be touched.-
-My Uncle, Aunt, Ben and Mac are scary, he is just weird. – She said watching the man fuss with the bandages on her palms and feet before covering her back up. Once the healer had assured himself that she was comfortable and able to hold a cup by her he settled in his own chair. The Herald leaned forward clearing his throat, “Now child, I know your throat is still sore but there are some questions I need to ask you. Do you understand me?” She nodded which seemed to make him relax. “Now, your relatives were tried and have been sentenced to work in the labor camps in the west. You will be considered a ward of the Heralds until you come of age. Once the snows begin to melt you will be sent to the Herald’s college to study.”
She nodded again; Cassius had explained all of this before.
“Now what shall we call you, child? Your relatives would not give us a name.” -What does he mean?-
-What did your relatives call you?-
-Did they call you by nothing else?-
-Scab, maggot, waste, freak. – The list went on until Cassius finally stopped her.
-Enough, what would you like to be called?-
She frowned curling in on herself in the small bed.
-I can choose?-
-Yes, any name you wish.-
She sounded several out in her head before giving up. She slid into the trance like state she used while working or on the long nights she was in too much pain to sleep.
-Rider, what are you doing? The healer is worried.-
-He can worry. – She murmured sliding into the still place deep within her mind. There was no pain or tiredness here, only the web. It hung glittering below her like a dew covered spider web.
-Child?- Cassius’ voice whispered in her mind, she turned and saw him watching the web below, his presence a white ball of light.
Reaching out she pulled a mass of tangled web toward her. While she was here she might as well put the information Cassius had given her in its place so that she would never forget it. The web moved and shifted as she added each memory and its connecting strands. Once she finished she began searching the strands for a name. Deep toward the center of the web she found one of the few memories of her mother. She was telling her a story about a hero named Lorna.
-Lorna. – She told Cassius in a happy chirp, drawing back to her waking mind. She returned to chaos. Deafening voices filled her head, all talking at once, with a gasp she retreated to the web only now a second glittering web hung to one side. Her web was a soft golden color, while this one was a blinding white, like Cassius. She gasped when she realized what it was, this was all the companions, and it seemed they were all talking to Cassius. Reaching out she nudged Cassius to gain his attention.
-Have I done something wrong, Cassius?-
-No, my rider, it is more that you have done something very right. The other Companions are very interested in your web. May I show them?- -They cannot already see it?-
-No, why do you say that?-
-Because I can see them. They have their own web. They are being awful loud too. I came back to the web because they were too loud.- -You can hear them?-
-Yes, but they are all talking at once.-
Reaching out she poked the closest companion next to Cassius and the voice gave a shout of surprise. Concentrating on the voice, she said, -Sorry, who are you?-
-You can hear us, child? – The other voices stilled to a soft murmur. -Apparently. – Cassius answered, -In her waking mind she said we were deafening. I think we will be starting lessons to see if we can lower the volume for you, Lorna.-
Over the next hour she was taught to shield her mind and then the companion web was tested to see who she could speak to. She was not reliably able to identify a voice until she added the voice and name of the companion to her own web, than she could find them easily.
Three days later she was ready to get out of the sick room. She wanted to see Cassius in the flesh. The healer refused to allow her to even place her feet on the ground fearing for the injury to her back. She tried to explain that this was an old problem that had happened when she was small but he refused to listen.
That was the problem. She did not speak. She had never been allowed and the scars that covered her throat showed the damage it had suffered when she had cried once too often for her relatives. She honestly was not sure she could speak.
The healer was not someone Cass could speak with, nor were most of the soldiers and workers here. Sliding out of the covers, she struggled into the clothes that had been given her; there was even a pair of boots she had yet to wear. Pulling everything on and struggling to her feet she made her way to the door.
Since her uncle hurt her back her legs were chancy at best. Walking on legs you could not fully feel was hard. She could make it most of the time but sometimes her knees gave way with no warning. Standing at the bedside for a moment she waited to see if anything hurt. There were no stabbing pains or such so she made her way to the door and down the hall keeping a hand on the wall just in case.
She was able to block out the other companions except when they focused on her. Now a low murmur of concern filled the back of her mind from several of the mares. Cassius had reluctantly agreed to the escape after she had asked how she was ever going to learn to ride if she was not allowed out of bed. She made her way to a side door with Cassius directing her. By some miracle she had encountered no one. Opening the door she slowly made her way across the courtyard. Several stable boys gaped at her stiff legged progress but she ignored them. Cassius trotted out to meet her, a paddock to one side contained another Companion, Balin, and who was paired with Herald Morgan. She gave him a soft -Hello. – As she made her way to Cass.
-You are taller than I remember.-
Cassius was taller than the other companion, long legged and deep chested; he was built for long distances and endurance. Cassius had gotten one of the stable hands to tack him up earlier. Now he lowered himself to his knees so his small rider could mount.
She heard a soft conversation between Cassius and Balin in the back of her mind as she pulled herself into the saddle.
-She is very small for a rider. – Balin whispered with concern. -She will grow. – Cassius responded.
-We need to practice at me tacking you and getting on with you standing. – Lorna said with determination, including Balin in the conversation. A soft wave of approval came from the mental watchers. -We will. – Cassius assured her. -Ready? – He asked as lurched to his feet, waiting for her to get settled back into the saddle. Gripping a piece of his mane she sat as straight as she could.
-Yes. – Cassius began walking down the courtyard slowly increasing his speed. The problem was her legs. She could not tell if she was truly gripping his sides and the lack of contact sent her bouncing at the trot. Her boots would not stay in the stirrups since she could not tell if she had enough weight in them. The healer and Herald Morgan were arguing as they watched her. The herald had to stop Healer Bryant from trying to rush up and snatch her off the horse which had lead to a screaming match.
Balin vaulted the fence to the cries of the stable boys and came to join Cassius trotting away from the barn. Over the cries of the healer they trotted out of town to a nearby meadow. Kneeling, Cass let her dismount, sliding off stiffly.
-Everyday. – She told him, sitting on the dead brown grass. They were in the last few weeks of winter. She wanted to be in the capital by spring. That would take some work on her part whether the healer wanted her to or not. Over the next few weeks she rode morning and afternoon. Her body slowly gained muscle and stopped screaming at her after each ride. Within a month she was headed on her way to the capitol.
Thanks to her treacherous legs she was riding using the saddle straps to keep an injured or sleeping rider in the saddle. The healer had at least recommended he use a pair of leg braces. These along with a pair of crutches gave her a freedom of movement she had not had in years. Being a herald promised a life of travel and new people. She was heading to a school to learn and add to her web. This was her dream come true.
Arriving however was a string of disappointments. She was labeled a cripple by most of the students and ignored. She was disadvantaged in class and mocked by bullies about not being able to speak. She was banned from weapons class and riding lessons. The heralds said she would never be strong enough to ride circuit or even be a true herald. She spent most of her nights in tears trying to make her voice work properly.
Her mental web meant that once she added the information to her web she knew it from then on without studying. She was accused of cheating by several students and only the intervention of Herald Morgan and the Head Herald stopped the accusations but the anger and dirty looks behind her back continued.
Every afternoon after classes she went to the fields and paddocks where the companions stayed and rode. If she could stay on bareback, than she would be fine. She still fell a number of times but she was getting better. She spent the rainy afternoons learning her way around the castle and college. While she practiced speaking at night she hooked her legs to the bedpost and did sit ups and pull ups. Her body needed to be strong if she was to ride circuit.
One of the only students she would consider a friend as Tao. He was in the Bardic College. Even though he was the son of a prominent official he was often dismissed because he was seen as slow or simple minded. While he had no head for facts or numbers, his musical repertoire was huge. He only had to hear a song once to commit it to memory. After watching him mocked once too often Lorna had written out a note and pressed it into the boy’s hand as she passed.
What if the facts were a song?
Soon after that he began doing better in classes and stuck up for Lorna where he could. She gave him one of her rare smiles when entering their history class she saw him waving her to the empty chair next to him.
“I just wanted to say thank you. I know you keep to yourself but I would like to count you as a friend if you will let me?”
She gave him another small smile and nodded. After classes she took him to meet Cassius. To her surprise Cassius offered to let the boy ride him. Lorna gestured from him to Cass but the boy clearly did not understand. Feeling her pockets she flinched, she had forgotten her paper and pencil. Cassius would not be able to mind speak to Tao. “He wants you to ride.” she managed keeping her eyes on Cassius. Her voice was deep and gravelly, the words coming out slurred and broken. She risked a glance at the boy and he was gaping at her.
-You tell him. – She told Cassius miserably, -he cannot understand me. – Tears pricked her eyes; she would never be able to talk.
“Lorna, you talked!” Tao sputtered, “What do you mean he wants me to ride? He’s your companion, I can’t ride him!” Lorna stared at him. “Anyway, I know a companion would never dump me but I am scared of horses.” he said with a soft laugh. “Could you always talk?” he asked softly.
“No, learning.” she mangled the last word but he seemed to understand. “Well, you helped me with my studies, the least I can do is help you with your voice. You can talk to me whenever you like. Deal?” She grinned, the smile lighting up her entire face.
“Deal.” She said, the word coming out more like Beal. She made a harsh sound at this and pulled a face. Tao laughed.
“Say it again.” She practiced as they walked along the pasture fence.
She told Tao about not being allowed to do weapons practice and he urged her to speak to the weapons master. He took her along to a few of his classes. She sat in the back watching the class practice. The instructor was fond of sweeping the legs of unbalanced students out from under them. She could not rely on her legs to stand firm during a fight. As Tao was finishing up his class another young man started his practice to one side. Unlike Tao and his group working with long swords and shields, this man never stood still. He held a long dagger and short sword which he used to both block and parry with. He tumbled along the ground and sprang back to his feet, kicked with his legs and punched with fists. This was not the polite style, this was survival. She would need this.
Once Tao joined her she grabbed his arm, “Man practicing, who?” she said gesturing.
“That’s a visiting Herald, a friend of the Weapons Master. I don’t know his name but I can try and find out for you.”
“Yes, ‘portant.” she insisted.
That night she wrote out what she wanted to say to the arms master. She would need to say it to him. She wanted this man’s help and respect. She would have to earn it and it would not do to back down by handing him a note or having Cassius say it for her.
The next afternoon found the Queen’s Herald, Herald Morgan, Herald Price and the Head of the college joining the riding instructor leaning against the pasture fence.
“I take it this is the reason my companion suggested I take a walk.” The Head said with a small laugh, “Who is that riding, they are doing rather well. One of your student’s Michael?”
“That is Lorna and her companion Cassius.” Herald Michael Morgan responded. “Dear god, she will kill herself!”
“Considering she has been practicing for most of the year, I rather doubt that. She could give many of my riders a run for their money.” He pulled himself up to the top fence rail and took a seat. “We refused to allow the girl into riding lessons or weapons training because of her health. I asked the companions to bring you here so we can decide how to rectify this mistake.”
“Well the girl is clearly able to ride. If she is able to keep up in class I would move her into my advanced classes on this ride alone.” Herald Price said, calmly watching the pair cutting patterns into the grass as they ran the pasture like it was an obstacle course. “As for the weapon’s classes, what can it hurt for her to try?” “But will she even be able to be a true herald?”
“She seems determined to prove us wrong, I say we wait and see.”
Once her ride was over and Cassius wiped down, cooled off and fed, Lorna cleaned herself up and went to speak to the weapons master Alberich.