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Author: Mercedes Lackey
Publisher: DAW Books, 2021
Series: Valdemar: The Founding of Valdemar: Book 1

1. Beyond
2. Into the West

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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The long-awaited founding of Valdemar comes to life in this new series from a New York Times bestselling author and beloved fantasist.

Within the Eastern Empire, Duke Kordas Valdemar rules a tiny, bucolic Duchy that focuses mostly on horse breeding. Anticipating the day when the Empire's exploitative and militant leaders would not be content to leave them alone, Korda's father set out to gather magicians in the hopes of one day finding a way to escape and protect the people of the Duchy from tyranny.

Kordas has lived his life looking over his shoulder. The signs in the Empire are increasingly dire. Under the direction of the Emperor, mages have begun to harness the power of dark magics, including blood magic, the powers of the Abyssal Planes, and the binding and "milking" of Elemental creatures.

But then one of the Duchy's mages has a breakthrough. There is a way to place a Gate at a distance so far from the Empire that it is unlikely the Emperor can find or follow them as they evacuate everyone that is willing to leave.

But time is running out, and Kordas has been summoned to the Emperor's Court.

Can his reputation as a country bumpkin and his acting skills buy him and his people the time they need to flee? Or will the Emperor lose patience, invade to strip Valdemar of everything of worth, and send its conscripted people into the front lines of the Imperial wars?



"Help them through, whenever you can," muttered Kordas, Duke of Valdemar, in a horse-box that felt stifling for the stark, dirty work to be done. He had latched onto that as his personal guide to life when he'd begun equine husbandry, and he must have repeated it to himself twenty times in the past candlemark, to maintain his focus.

The Duke was nearly beside himself over the state of his favorite mare, but no grinding of teeth nor fretting would take the place of skilled hands in a time like this. The mare in question was in the throes of foaling, and it was not going well. Knowing that she was very close to dropping, Kordas had ordered her put up in her loose-box just before sunset, and it was a good thing that he had. It was, as these things always were, the middle of the night.

On the plus side, Kordas was an educated mage, so at least he had mage-lights to see by, and a panel of mage-fire to keep him and the sweating mare warm. And, fortunately, this wasn't out in the pouring rain. Because it was raining--of course it was. Not all of the rumbling was thunder. There had been tremors all across the Empire of late. This mare and most of the other animals in the area were on edge, and those tremors could be why she went into birthing so suddenly--an instinctive impulse to birth now, in case danger was coming. The stable smelled of sweaty horse, damp and dry hay and straw, rain, the reek of Kordas's own sweat, the mare's waters, and a truly notable amount of the mare's digestive gas.

This was especially notable because Kordas was trying to get the foal positioned correctly and his arm was deeply engaged.

They never tell you that giving birth makes the mother gassy, until you're well-committed to the program...

Kordas had stripped off tunic and shirt a candlemark or so ago. His trews were probably ruined, his hair was plastered to his head with sweat, more sweat ran down into his eyes and down his back, and the pain in his right arm and shoulder was indescribable. I don't think I've ever been more miserable in my life.

On the minus side...

The mare grunted with a contraction. Her vaginal muscles clamped down on his arm, he lost the miniature hoof he'd been groping for, and he thought his head was going to explode from the compression of those muscles around his arm. And then, she farted in his face.

As soon as the muscles relaxed, he pulled his arm out, another contraction started, and the foal popped into view again. One tiny hoof, and the nose, and no further.

He stared at the sight of his failure and cursed. "Futtering breech birth," he murmured, as his Healer, Cestin, soothed the mare and stroked her nose.

"Neither Arial nor her foal are up to much more of this," Cestin warned him, which of course he was well aware of. Arial's flanks were soaked with so much sweat that it had begun to foam, and her head hung limply. She was on her feet purely because Cestin was keeping her there. "That foal has to come out soon, alive or dead, or you're going to lose both of them."

"I came to help," called his sister-in-law Fidelia from the doorway. A moment later Delia herself came to the open door of the loose-box, shaking the water off her waxed-canvas cape as she took it off and slung it over the loose-box wall. As always, Delia was dressed to suit the occasion--in this case, in a pair of old worn breeches, a snagged and darned knitted tunic, and knee-high boots. She held up an unneeded lantern and blew the wick out.

"I'm not sure what you can--" he began.

"I've got the Fetching Gift," she reminded him. "I also brought you the boiled strap you forgot."

"Because I didn't know it was going to be a breech birth," he retorted. Then, aware of how ungrateful he sounded, he flushed. "You're a star."

"Well, when you didn't come back, I assumed the worst, and the worst is always a breech birth. I've learned an awful lot about foaling since I moved in with you and Isla." She hung the lantern up and handed him a pail holding a steaming strap made of boiled bandage. "Now let's get this poor creature out of her misery."

As he took the strap, she moved to the mare's side and began feeling her swollen flank. The mare barely registered her presence with a flick of her ear.

Relief settled over him like a warm cloak. Now he could concentrate on getting this thing done properly.

Arial had presented a breech birth with one leg folded back, which was not the worst that could have happened, but was a difficult proposition with only two people, especially when one of them had to keep the mare on her feet, leaving only Kordas to do the work of trying to get the foal into a proper position for birth. When the mare began pushing the foal through the birth canal, as she was now, only one leg, instead of two, was protruding, and that meant the second leg was turned back and stuck at the shoulder. As he well knew, if he had made the mistake of grasping the first leg at this point to try tugging, serious damage could have resulted to the mare.

To solve the problem, he had to get the fetus pushed back out of the vagina so that the forelimbs could be repositioned. This was more easily done if the mare was on her feet rather than on her side straining. That was why Cestin was at her nose, giving her strength and keeping her upright. The problem he'd had was that he needed to keep track of the leg that was correctly positioned, and each time he'd pushed the foal back, that leg had gotten away from him. To make certain the free leg wasn't "lost" in the process, he should have placed some boiled rope or other sterilized strap around the protruding leg before the repulsion began. And because he'd run out of the manor so fast, purely not thinking, he'd left things like that behind. There were plenty of supplies here in the stable, but Cestin didn't know where they were, and to be honest, neither did he. Arial wasn't the only mare foaling tonight, and the stablemaster and both stableboys were somewhere out in the storm attending to a mare who'd hidden herself at the bottom of the pasture.

You could always be in their shoes right now.

He quickly passed the soft strap around the tiny ankle, loosely twisted it once to hold it in place, and began shoving the foal back up into the mare's uterus. She responded with a contraction that felt like she was about to break his arm, but he got the foal back up where she didn't want it to go, inserted his other arm, and began feeling for the mispositioned leg.

And barely got the tip of his finger on the knee, when another contraction moved it out of his grasp. He and the mare groaned together.

"Got it," Delia said quietly from beside him. He spared a glance at her; both her hands were on the mare's side and her eyes were closed in concentration, bits of her hair already coming loose from the fat brown braid curled around her neck.

A moment after that, he felt the foal's other foot fit itself into his hand. "Don't let her start a contraction!" he said sharply to Cestin. He shoved his other hand up inside his poor mare, got the strap around the second hoof by feel, then slid his hands out, pulling the strap just barely taut as he removed his arms from her insides.

"All right, let her lie down," he told the Healer. Arial responded to the Healer's release by folding her legs beneath her and going straight down into the straw, as he kept the tension up on that strap. Tension only. Just enough to keep both little feet where he wanted them, in the birth canal. He did not want to pull the foal out. All he wanted to do was to keep both legs positioned as if the foal was diving--

The mare's flanks shuddered with a contraction, and just like that, as easily as if Arial hadn't been struggling for the past half-candlemark, the foal slipped out onto the straw, rupturing the membrane around it as it did so.

A filly!

Moving slowly, and making soothing sounds, Kordas picked up a waiting piece of toweling and gently toweled off the foal's nose. She lifted and shook her head, and sneezed, and his heart sang. She's fine. She's just fine.

Another moment later, the foal rolled from her side into a normal "lying" position, and sneezed again. He put a finger in her mouth and she sucked at it vigorously. She was going to be more than fine.

Now it was Arial's turn to move; Cestin backed up as she gave indications she was about to stand. When she rolled to her feet and did, the cord broke, and Kordas reached for it carefully and tied a loose knot in it to make sure she didn't step on it and pull out the afterbirth prematurely.

She sniffed at the birth fluids in the straw, then, as if that scent reminded her that there ought to be a foal somewhere about, she turned, and spotted her new daughter. This was her third foal, and she was an old hand at this by now. She immediately began licking her foal, starting at the head. Kordas moved back and let her have her way.

He looked over at Delia, who was watching the foal with a thoroughly infatuated little smile on her face. The half-formed idea he'd had when he knew Arial had "caught" hardened into a decision. "Delia, I couldn't have turned her without your help."

Delia looked up from the foal to him. "Her? Oh! It's a filly?"

"More to the point, she's your filly now," he said warmly.

"I--what?" He chuckled. Delia looked as if he'd awakened her from a dead sleep, she was so startled.

"She's yours. Your sister had Arial's first foal, my cousin got her second. And the way you're watching that little girl, I'm afraid your heart would break if I gave her to anyone else." No mention of selling the foal; he would never sell a foal of Arial's bloodline.

Delia's expression went from stunned to joyful, with a hint of tears in her eyes. "It just might." She might have said something else, but just then the afterbirth fell into the straw with a dull thud--a good sign, that Arial had passed it so early. Delia moved out of the way so that he and Cestin could examine it.

No tears, no holes, and no toughening. He sighed with relief, and just then the stablemaster and two of the stableboys came in, the entire little parade soaking wet, one of the boys leading the mare that had been down at the end of the pasture, the stablemaster carrying the foal in his arms.

"Any problems?" he and the stablemaster asked simultaneously. And they both laughed.

"If I'd asked the gods for a perfect, easy birth, I couldn't have gotten better," the stablemaster said, as the boy led the mare into the loose-box. "But then, it did have to be in the middle of a howling thunderstorm and a groundshaker."

"Arial was breech, but Cestin and Delia helped me right her," Kordas replied.

The stablemaster put the foal down beside the mare; the foal immediately shoved his nose under his dam's belly and began rooting for the nipple. "Delia, eh?" The stablemaster eyed Delia with some speculation. "Never thought of using Fetching Gift for a breech birth. You could be right handy; if you think you could turn a foal that was presenting tail-first, you're worth your weight in gold."

Delia made a little bow. "Call on me at your will," she said.

Copyright © 2021 by Mercedes Lackey


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