After an early breakfast, Veltyen and Sery went to the stables and harnessed Magewhisper for the trip to Silver Meadows, the stallion’s birthplace and the most reknown mage-breeding stables in the Seven Kingdoms. Veltyen was relieved that Sery had more or less regained her usual demeanour after the strangeness of the previous day.
Luggage secure, Veltyen boosted Sery into the saddle and climbed up behind her. With a pang, he realized that this trip would likely be the last they would ever ride double together. He was proud of Sery’s growing independence, but the inevitable distance that created made him feel strangely lonely.
Veltyen cleared his throat and shook off the nostalgia. “Ready to go?”
At Sery’s nod, he squeezed a signal to Magewhisper and they were off.
“What’s it like at Magewhisper’s home?” Sery asked.
“It’s quite a large facility in acreage, but there are only about two hundred horses there at any one time,” Veltyen answered. “Silver Meadows is run by the Meadows family, one of the strongest lines of life-mages in the world. Darnell Meadows was actually the first to develop the technique for mage-breeding horses about two centuries ago, and all the oldest and finest lineages originate there.
“Compared to a regular breeding farm, it has an incredibly small staff. It’s run by the Meadows family and the life-mage apprentices they accept for training. At any given time, there are about twenty pregnant mares, one or two of which is a first-generation project. There will be about forty youngsters less than two years old and still in training. Depending on their talents and preferences, Silver Meadows horses will specialize in different competitive events or partnering with a mage. Magewhisper here was trained in combat maneuvers.” Veltyen patted the stallion’s shoulder and got a snort in response. He continued, “Maybe fifty or sixty horses will be in retirement. Most older horses will spend retirement with their mage partner, but the retired racers and show jumpers will be there, and the occasional mount who outlived their mage partner.
“The rest will be working-age horses, either not yet partnered or actively competing for Silver Meadows. When I partnered with Magewhisper, there were twelve unpartnered horses, but the number varies quite a bit depending on how well they match with people seeking new partners that year.
“There are also a small number of non-mage-bred horses, either the mounts of guests or stock for first-generation projects.”
Sery nodded, and Veltyen chuckled as he realized he had managed to say a lot without really answering her question. He tried again. “It’s a beautiful place, but very strange if you’re used to regular stables. Most of it is utterly peaceful, but there’s always something interesting to see if you wander over to the training areas. There’s a nice inn for visitors, which is where we’ll be staying. Magewhisper and I usually visit about once a year. His dam is still breeding age, so there’s usually a new sibling to greet. The foals are always fun to watch.”
Sery nodded again. After a pause, she asked, “What if none of them like me?”
Magewhisper snorted and shook his head vigorously.
“I highly doubt it,” said Veltyen, in full agreement with his equine partner. “My guess would be that your main problem will be choosing between all the horses who want to partner with you.”
Sery was a ball of nervous excitement as they passed an elegantly carved sign reading, “Silver Meadows” and entered the property. Acres of green pasture extended farther than the eye could see, dotted with the glossy, silver coats of mage-bred horses. The fences on the nearby pastures appeared strangely low, short enough that even Sery would have little trouble climbing over. In contrast, she saw several in the distance where the fences were over twice Veltyen’s height.
Their arrival did not go unnoticed. Ears pricked with interest, horses from near and far came to investigate, hopping easily over any fences in their way. Before long – even at an easy gallop, they were
– they were surrounded by a small herd. Sery giggled as inquisitive noses tickled her with whuffling breaths.
“I was right,” Veltyen murmured, his voice vibrating against her skin from his seat behind her.
Sery tilted her head to look inquisitively at him, and he smiled. “I don’t get nearly this much attention when it’s just me and Magewhisper. You’re popular with mage mounts.”
Sery looked back at the horses without answering, unwilling to disagree with Veltyen’s assessment but not really believing herself special when it came to mage-bred horses.
His voice came again, warm and amused. “Still don’t believe me, I see. Let’s make a bet.”
Sery twisted again to look at him. “What bet?”
“I bet that no less than three horses will volunteer to partner with you. If I win…” his voice trailed off thoughtfully. “Hmm. If I win, you have to tell me what you want for your birthday.”
Sery’s brow furrowed in consternation. How could she possibly want anything when Veltyen was so generous? “But I don’t…”
“Nope. If I win, you have to think of something.”
“And if I win?” Sery ventured.
Veltyen chuckled. “You won’t, but in that unlikely event, whatever you want. I’ll give you one free wish.”
“…It’s the same either way…”
Veltyen chuckled, louder this time. “Kind of. If I win, you have to wait for your birthday, though.”
“You should get a wish if you win,” Sery tried to argue.
“My wish is to know what you want for your birthday.”
Sery looked down, strangely bemused by the circular conversation.
Veltyen hugged her from behind, chin coming down to rest on her head, enveloping her in warmth. “What? You don’t want to bet?” he asked coaxingly.
He was irresistible like this. “Okay,” she consented, though she knew she should not let him spoil her so much.
She could hear the grin in his voice. “Let’s hurry on and see who wins, then.”
Magewhisper surged into a canter, taking the main path that led to the inn. Some of the other horses followed; others peeled away to return to their pastures.
Veltyen led Sery out of the inn where they had deposited their luggage, intending to find Magewhisper and introduce Sery to the stallion’s family, only to be met by Tyron Meadows himself.
The head breeder of the Meadows family was a burly, powerful man in his late fifties whose rough clothing was impossible to distinguish from that of an ordinary stablehand. Only the fact that almost two-thirds of his hair was mage silver revealed the depth of his power as a five-star mage who used his abilities to the fullest on a daily basis.
Despite the life mage’s sizeable
, Veltyen detected the familiar signs of magic overuse in Tyron’s face and body, his complexion too pale and his expression slightly dull and listless despite the fierce intelligence that shone in his eyes.
“Tyron,” Veltyen greeted with a handshake, expression concerned. “What has you so overdrawn?” he asked, referring to when mages depeleted their
to below the 20% threshold required to maintain health.
Tyron grimaced. “With Neri fully completed her master studies, we decided we were up for having two first-gen breeding projects at the same time. Just when she started on her first solo first-gen, two of our mares had unexpected pregnancies. She doesn’t have any magic to spare during the first few weeks, so I’ve been covering our other first-gen, these two early pregnancies, and helping along fourteen other pregnancies.”
Veltyen winced. From his other visits to Silver Meadows, he understood that the early days of pregnancy were the most crucial to proper development and this was also the time that a huge amount of magic went into the changes that created mage-bred animals. After the first generation of breeding, the mana particle consumption went down by half, but was still enormous enough that only four-star and stronger mages were accepted for apprenticeships. The amount of magic Tyron had to be expending on a daily basis would kill him if it went on for an extended period of time.
Tyron smiled wearily at Veltyen’s concern. “It’s not for much longer. I almost have the changes stabilized enough that our journeymen can take over in a week or two. Emergencies have happened before, and I’ve always survived.”
Sery touched Veltyen’s hand unobtrusively to get his attention. When he looked down, he saw that she looked just as concerned as he did about Tyron’s state of health. She glanced at the life-mage, then back at him with a questioning expression, silently asking permission to restore Tyron’s
Tyron mistook the gesture as a request for an introduction. Straightening his posture and visibly trying to shake his weariness, he held out a hand and said, “I’m sure you didn’t travel all this way to worry over me. Welcome to Silver Meadows, young lady. My name is Tyron Meadows, current head of breeding operations.”
Sery accepted the handshake, her small, delicate hand dwarfed by Tyron’s. Without permission, she kept her active power leashed, but the skin-to-skin contact still made the life-mage narrow his eyes in focus, sensing his
refilling at many times the usual rate.
Veltyen made the introduction. “Tyron, this is Sery Holder. She’s a Source. We came to see if she could find a mage mount to partner with, but I think she can help you quite a bit while we’re here.”
“A Source,” Tyron repeated wonderingly. “I wouldn’t believe it, except I can feel the mana particles she’s generating. Well, you’re certainly welcome, Sery. We’ll certainly do our best to find a suitable match for you, and your presence for the next week or so would certainly lighten my load by quite a bit.”
Veltyen realized that Tyron thought Sery’s abilities were limited to her passive emission of mana particles. “Um, Tyron, Sery can help out a lot more if you let her.”
“What do you mean?” Tyron asked.
“She can replenish your
to full,” Veltyen explained. “The process is… intense.”
Tyron’s eyes rose. “It’s not that I don’t believe you,” he said apologetically, “but more that I can’t believe it. Full
“I can show you,” Sery offered in her quiet voice.
“By all means, young lady, go ahead,” Tyron invited.
Sery did not waste any time, grasping Tyron’s hand again and closing her eyes. Veltyen thought about further warning Tyron about the rush of sensation that accompanied the mana particle transfer, then decided it was too late to accomplish anything.
To his surprise, it was a good minute before Sery opened her eyes and stepped back. From his conversations with Devlin, he knew that Sery had no problems refilling five-star
and had not expected the process to take more than a second.
Perceptive as always, Sery answered his unasked question. “Devlin says it’s more comfortable if I refill it gradually.” She made a face and added, “Also that it’s good for my discipline if I fine-tune my control.”
Veltyen nodded in agreement, silently admiring the guild head’s deft maneuvering. Without lying, Devlin had managed to handle the issue of the intense pleasure Sery’s powers could induce while also advancing her skill as a mage.
Healthy colour flooded Tyron’s skin and the weariness left his posture, making him look a good ten years younger. He wore a relaxed, warm smile that quickly shifted into an intent focus on Sery. “Miss Holder, would you consider taking a permanent position at Silver Meadows?”
Sery blushed and looked down, shaking her head. “I work for Eterna,” she mumbled.
Veltyen grinned and slung an arm around Sery’s shoulders. “Don’t even try to steal her away from us, Tyron. Sery is Eterna’s Source now.”
“Ah, well. Had to try,” Tyron said in good humour, though with real disappointment. “The offer is always open, and no matter what contracts you already hold, I can guarantee Silver Meadows can make a
Veltyen didn’t doubt the life-mage’s words. Silver Meadows horses partnered with some of the wealthiest mages and competed at the most prestigious events all over the Seven Kingdoms, and the amount of revenue that flowed in rivalled that of a large city.
“Off to visit Magewhisper’s dam today, I presume?” Tyron continued. “Windwhisper’s new little one is Firewind. Quite the cute little fellow. Have a nice visit and I’ll have someone give you the tour tomorrow.”
Sery looked at the large number of beautiful mage-bred horses before her, utterly baffled.
Veltyen chuckled, the sound indicating equal parts surprise and amusement. “I was clearly underestimating your appeal when I set the bet at three.”
As part of the typical way of things when a mage came to Silver Meadows looking for a partner, Sery had spent the previous day being given a tour of the horse farm and being personally introduced to the eighteen unpartnered horses currently in residence.
The day after such a tour, any horse that was interested in potentially partnering with the mage in question was supposed to show up at the inn after breakfast. From Tyron’s explanations, Sery understood that this was usually one or two horses, and not infrequently none at all. Despite Veltyen’s reassurances, Sery had braced herself for the possibility that none of the horses would want to be her partner.
In addition to all eighteen horses who had decided to become mage mounts and completed all their training, there were twelve who had decided on competitive careers in racing, show jumping, or dressage, eight horses who were considered still in training, and one ‘other’ that particularly stuck in Sery’s memory.
“That’s Silverlight,” Tyron had said in fond exasperation when the mare had turned up in the breeding stables during the course of the tour. “Our prize loafer. From our oldest ‘Silver’ and ‘Light’ lines, forty generations of mage-breeding on both sides, the first horse in the Seven Kingdoms to be rated three stars. Fifteen years old, turned down every offer to partner with a mage since she was five, notoriously lazy in training for competition, no interest whatsoever in breeding the next generation. She occasionally condescends to compete for us in ultra-long-distance racing, which she wins without trying because of the size of her
.” He had sighed. “Damn beautiful girl, and she knows it.”
And Silverlight was exceptional, even among the impeccable forms of the other horses. Mage-bred horses had a lifespan extended to around fifty or sixty years, usually beginning their working careers at the age of five and retiring in their early forties. At fifteen, Silverlight was in her prime of life, her movements and lines so graceful that she looked more like an artist’s idealization of a horse than a real creature of flesh and blood. She had briefly come over to inspect Sery before wandering off with an aloof attitude. Sery had not expected the mare, who had refused any partners for ten years, to show up this morning.
“So, did you have any favourites?” Veltyen asked.
Sery had no idea how to make a choice from this many eager prospects. She shook her head, not wanting to hurt any of the horses’ feelings.
Silverlight tossed her head and struck a pose, clearly believing that the decision was a no-brainer. From most mages’ perspective, it probably would be, given the size of her
, but Sery had no need of a mount with large magic stores.
Beside her and Veltyen, Magewhisper snorted, clearly unimpressed with the mare’s haughty attitude. The stallion pranced in place for a moment, the movement purposeful rather than restless.
“Race?” Veltyen interpreted.
Magewhisper nodded. He then nudged Veltyen and reared up on his hind legs, coming down in a slow, controlled descent that took years of training to master.
“And a dressage competition?” Veltyen guessed.
Magewhisper shook his head. He kicked out his back legs in a much more violent, though no less controlled, fashion.
Veltyen’s eyebrows rose. “Real battle maneuvers? Is that necessary? I know most of the horses here don’t learn those.”
Magewhisper nodded and nudged Sery with his nose.
Veltyen’s expression softened. “You’re right, buddy. Anything that would keep Sery safer. So Sery, do you agree?”
“Mm?” Sery made a questioning noise, not understanding.
“We’ll have a competition of sorts, with the winner to be your partner. Either you or any of the horses can change their minds, of course, but the competition will give you a way to see them at their best.”
“Let’s go ask Tyron if we can borrow some of the facilities.”