That's not important, though. What's important is that we're finally gonna find out how this all goes down.
(BTW, idk if I ever thanked ladyofthelog for making a trip to my house to, like, give me some books. That was really awesome.)
A link to part one, if you want to refresh your memory.
So, when we last left off, Vanyel and Stefan had finally consummated their burning desire for each other and we learned that Stefan is possibly Vanyel's reincarnated soulbond. The next morning, Vanyel has lots to think about, so he borrows a horse from the stables and goes for a ride on a horse that has more personality than a lot of Lackey's human characters. (She's touchy in the mouth and responds well to knee and neckrein; as soon as Vanyel stops for any reason, she starts stuffing her face with grass.)
On his way back to the stable, Vanyel's attacked by a rogue wizard! Of course, the rogue wizard's no match for Vanyel Demonsbane Shadowstalker or whatever the ballads call him, and Vanyel KOs him and discovers that, whoops, this wizard's one of the persecuted mages from out of Karse, who escaped into Valdemar and then went crazy because of all the vrondi watching him all the time. Vanyel feels kinda bad about that, but nothing to be done about it now, so he takes the wizard back to the priest at Forst Reach for dealing with.
Meanwhile, Stefan has been tapped to play for Vanyel's mother and her ladies-in-waiting in the garden, which goes well until a passing peasant tries to kill them. Wait, that's no passing peasant! That's...the wizard that Vanyel brought to the priest just now??? Vanyel shows up to battle the mage, which he has a lot more trouble with this time around for some reason, and takes a magical poisoned dagger in the shoulder for his troubles. The mage actually gets taken out by one of Vanyel's cousins, who's teaching a class at the time.
"I hope you were paying attention," Radavel said matter-of-factly. "If you get the value of surprise on a mage about to spellcast, that's the best way to take him. Get his attention and interrupt his magic, then rush him before he has a chance to redirect it. Go for his arms first--most of 'em seem to have to wave their arms around to get a spell off. If you can, you want to keep 'em alive for questioning."
That's not possible in this case because Yfandes is trampling the mage into a fine red paste. They get Vanyel inside, where Savil examines him and determines that the knife is casting a perpetual Sap spell on Vanyel, gradually depleting his HP, but fortunately Stefan mitigates some of the effects (having your lifebonded in battle with you casts perpetual Regen, maybe?). She can't deal with the knife on her own, despite being one of the greatest Herald-Mages in Valdemar, so she decides to go to the Tayledras, which is fine with me because I love it whenever she visits the mystical wise brown people with My Little Pony names in their mountain forest home.
Savil has a brief argument with Starwind and Moondance about whether or not they're going to come help; Vanyel can't Gate in his condition, but on the other hand the Tayledras are isolationist mystical wise brown people who never leave their secluded mountain forest home without great imperative. But they do eventually make up their minds to help Vanyel, because we still have half the book to go and there hasn't even been a showdown with an evil bishounen yet.
They remove the knife without much fuss, and also Starwind and Moondance determine with their mystical forest powers that Stefan really is Tylendel's reincarnation. Savil doesn't believe them, and they decide not to tell Vanyel in case it places some stress on the relationship. I have no idea why this is relevant.
They also deliver a nice little preachy speech to Vanyel's parents:
"It seems to me, Lord Withen," Starwind said finally, just before the long silence became too much to bear, "that a man's life must be judged by what he has done with it. Your son is a hero, not only to your people, but to ours, to the people of Baires and Lineas, even to some outside the Borders of your realm. Look at the good that he has done--and yet always within him is a deep and abiding hurt, because he feels that you have seen nothing of the good he has done, that you feel he is something evil and unclean."
What I think is weird about this spiel is that Vanyel's parents actually seem to have been coming around on their own. Like, they asked Vanyel to bring his special friend with him? They put them in the same room, even? Withen consulted with Vanyel on several personal and political matters? So...yeah?
Starwind and Moondance stick around until Vanyel get better, and then with Savil they work some magic on the Sap-dagger to figure out what was up with that crazy mage. Turns out he wasn't crazy; that was some kind of mind-disguise created by another, more powerful mage, who sent him here to assassinate Vanyel's parents. Vanyel convinces his parents to move to Haven, and there's a nice little farewell scene where Withen gives him a hug and tells Vanyel that it's okay that he's gay. Yay.
Stefan, of course, doesn't care that he's in danger by virtue of being Vanyel's boifurendo, but a few months later Vanyel has to go on a diplomatic mission to the neighboring country of Rethwellan, where they don't like gay people. For some reason he seems convinced that Stefan's going to break up with him over not being allowed to come.
"Of course I mind!" Stef replied, some of the anger Van had expected before this in his voice. "How can I not mind? But if there's one thing a Bard knows, it's how Heralds think. I've known all along that if you had to make a choice between me and your duty, I'd lose. It's just the way you are." His arms tightened around Vanyel's chest. "I don't like it," he continued quietly, "but I also don't like it that you can speak directly to my mind and I can't do the same to yours, and I'm learning to live with that, too. And you didn't answer me about how long you think you'll be gone."
I...what? How is Stefan "losing" to Vanyel's duty? That's like a wife thinking that she's "losing" her husband because he has to go on a business trip. Furthermore, Vanyel performing his duties is essential to their relationship; if this diplomatic mission fails, then Valdemar might very well be crushed in what imminent war looms on the horizon, and then it won't matter if they're lifebonded or not. This isn't some great emotional sacrifice; this is Relationships 101. Anyone over the age of 7 should be able to understand this.
Vanyel gets back from his business trip with a great treaty, and there's a few pages of Council meeting that are totally irrelevant to the plot of the rest of the book. (None of the setup with Karse has anything to do with the rest of the book. Maybe with another book, but not this one.) When Vanyel gets back to his quarters, Stefan has a gift for him: an amber necklace for Vanyel to use in his magic. Vanyel proceeds to look that gift horse in the mouth right away:
"Stefan," Van said in a strange, strained voice. "You have to tell me. Where--and more importantly, how--did you get this?"
"I didn't steal it!" Stefan exclaimed, stung.
"I didn't think you did, love--but there's no ordinary way you could afford something like this, and we both know it." Vanyel put the pendant back in the box and closed it. "I can't in good conscience wear this until I know."
Does Vanyel seriously think his boyfriend prostituted himself for a piece of jewelry? I can't even. Stefan, of course, earned it through legitimate means--by playing music, you know, the thing he does for a living, the thing he has a Gift for. And Stefan even feels bad! This relationship is more toxic than the waste pool outside of a factory farm.
Then someone starts killing the Herald-Mages, making them them look like accidents. One falls off his astronomy tower. Another has an alchemical accident. Finally the only one left is Savil, who's understandably paranoid. Vanyel shakes his head and clucks over his demented his old aunt has become, and goes and has sex with Stefan instead of strengthening her shields like she wanted. He resolves to do it in the morning, and so of course that night she dies: killed violently by something in her room, in what is in no way, shape, or form an accident. And thus Vanyel is, at last, THE LAST HERALD-MAGE.
Once he realizes that something murdered his dear old auntie, Vanyel spares no magical expense in finding what did it and who sent it. He finds the evil bird-thing hiding in a cave up north, drags it into the room with his brain, and then crushes it into a bloody pulp in order to send a message. Then he saddles up Yfandes, intending to ride into the snowy north to find the mage responsible. Stefan, of course, insists on coming too.
"I'm coming with you," he said stubbornly, moving away from the door and toward Vanyel. "If you won't take me with you, I'll follow you. If you set somebody to watch me, I'll get away somehow. If you won't let me stay with you, I'll ride an hour behind you." He stopped for a moment, then made the last two steps in a rush, taking Vanyel in his arms before he could evade the embrace. Vanyel held himself away, as stiffly as the night they first met, but Stef hid his face in Vanyel's jerkin anyway. "I don't care what you do," he said into Vanyel's shoulder, his cheek pressed tightly against the smooth leather. "I love you, and I'm following you. I don't care what happens to me, as long as I can be with you."
How can Vanyel say no to that much codependency? He can't, of course, and so thus begins a very long and uncomfortable journey where Vanyel hardly ever takes rest breaks and hardly ever talks to Stefan except to tell him to leave before things get even worse. Stefan sticks it out stubbornly, thinking about how different and cold Vanyel is. The situation uncomfortably parallels when Tylendel went crazed with revenge against the ones who killed his brother in the first book (and he dragged Vanyel down with him, if you'll recall), but I'm not sure Lackey's intelligent enough of a writer to have done this on purpose, and so I'm just left feeling very uncomfortable and incredulous.
Stefan does what Vanyel didn't do back then, though, which is that he finally calls Vanyel on it: it's not like their enemy is going anywhere, and he already knows they're coming, so what's the point of riding the poor horses into the ground? Yfandes is all but keeling over. Vanyel gets ready to turn this into a full-blown petty argument where you start bringing up in-laws and how the other person never unloads the dishwasher, but then they're attacked by dozens of brigands.
Vanyel starts flinging fireballs. Stefan gets bucked off his horse and runs the fuck away from this scary-ass situation and hides in the forest. Then he realizes that he just left his boyfriend to get murdered by bandits and runs back, only to find poor Yfandes lying in the snow with her tail chopped off. Vanyel is gone.
At this point the POV changes to Damen, a boy who works for the brigands as some kind of servant. Vanyel's been incapacitated by some kind of magical Confuse powder that renders him conscious but helpless, and the bandits take this opportunity to kick him in the kidneys a few times. And gang-rape him. They tie him up with Yfandes' harness and even tie her tail on him somehow and take turns, calling him their "little white mare." I can't even think of anything funny to say because this is actually just terrible. Possibly also cheap emotional manipulation, but I can't tell the difference through all the aaauuugghh.
But it turns out that "Master Dark" wants Vanyel alive, so Damen's sent off to fetch their mob doctor. The mob doctor--who seems to be an all right fellow, aside from working for the mob--can't fix Vanyel because of this Confuse spell that's in the way, so he removes it.
Meanwhile, Stefan's figured out that Yfandes isn't dead, just paralyzed by some kind of dart. He removes it, and Yfandes surges to her feet and demands that Stefan get on her back. He does as he's told, because you don't fuck with magical talking horses, and she takes him to the bandits' hideout just in time for them to watch it blow up. Vanyel comes strolling out of the flames holding a bandit in one hand and almost forces the bandit to impale himself on his own sword before Stefan stops him.
Now Vanyel starts going into shock, they're still in the middle of nowhere, and it's snowing. Fortunately, a talking wolf shows up to help.
Stef groped after a knife, his eyes fixed on the creature, his heart right in his throat. This beast--whatever it was--looked something like a wolf, but it was much bigger than any wolf Stef had ever heard of or seen. Its shoulder was as tall as his waist; it had a thin, rangy body with long legs, and a head with a very broad, rounded forehead, forward-facing eyes, and jaws--
Dear gods, that thing could bite my arm in half and never notice--
:I could, singer, but I won't.: The thing lolled out its tongue in a canine grin. :I see you recognize my Folk, white sister. Tell him.:
The talking wolf is a kyree, a species of sentient beings that are basically furry versions of the Tayledras. They're disposed to be friendly, partly because Vanyel's a friend of the Tayledras and partly because it's not like an evil wizard in the mountains is going to be nice to talking wolves, and so Stefan, Vanyel, and Yfandes are taken to shelter in the wolves' spa caves, where there are hot springs to bathe in and roots and berries to eat.
They've figured out what happened to Vanyel at this point. The wolf leader states the obvious that this is going to take healing. Or Healing, rather, because everything's easier with capital letters.
Stef finally blurted out what he'd been thinking since they met Aroon. "Lady--I don't think I can! I'm just a Bard, I don't know anything about--about Healing something like this! I--"
:You are one who loves, and is beloved,: she replied gravely. :That is not the answer to everything, but it will give you a beginning. You are a Bard, and you are practiced with words. Use that. Words can Heal--words and love together can more often achieve what magic cannot.:
That's it. Like, that's actually it. There's a page-long montage, sans dialogue, that shows time passing in a dreamlike fashion in the wolves' sunless cave. Stefan plays music for the wolves, has psychotherapy sessions with their leader, and takes long soaks in the hot springs with Vanyel. I have no idea what they do to put Vanyel back together, but whatever it is, it's over when Vanyel crawls into Stefan's bed of his own volition. THE POWER OF LOVE.
And then Vanyel is totally fine. This never comes up again.
(I did wonder how Lackey was going to resolve this trauma, because I could clearly see that there was all of 50 pages left in the book. And the answer is: in a totally incoherent and insulting fashion.)
They resume their search for the evil mage. It's still winter outside, so Vanyel wasn't incapacitated that long, either (ugh), and this whole thing seems to have made him less driven for revenge, anyway. They finally come to the icy pass that Vanyel recognizes from his dreams, and he senses that they're close. He does not send Stefan or Yfandes for help as soon as he realizes that the end is near. Instead they press through the pass, to see what's on the other side.
They mince through an avalanche danger to see a plain covered with stormtroopers on the other side of the pass. Instead of sending an avalanche down to block the pass, Vanyel sends Stefan for help on Yfandes, while he makes his way to a bottleneck where he plans to make his final stand.
Vanyel defeats several hundred stormtroopers and a few mages before "Master Dark," aka Leareth, finally makes his appearance. He is, of course, a beautiful bishounen who resembles Dark Vanyel, and this continues to beg to have a doujinshi drawn by CLAMP.
"You need not remain alone, Vanyel," Leareth continued, licking his lips sensuously. "You need only give over this madness--stretch out your hand to me, join me, take my Darkness to you. You will never be alone again. Think how much we could accomplish together! We are so very similar, we two, in our powers--and in our pleasures."
Leareth even suggests that he can bring Tylendel back to life, even though that doesn't make any sense because he's already reincarnated. Vanyel refuses, of course, and thinks that this is it, Leareth's gonna kill him--except that Yfandes comes roaring back. She used her magical talking horse powers to Haste herself and Stefan to the outpost, dumped him there, and then Hasted herself back. With her, Vanyel can cast Final Strike (yes, it's actually called Final Strike), sacrificing all of his remaining HP in order to deliver a critical hit on his foe.
By the time Stefan makes it back to the pass, there's nothing left except a lot of dead soldiers and a black spot where Vanyel and Yfandes used to be. And the amber pendant Stefan gave him. Cue falling to knees and sobbing in the wind as his hair falls prettily over his face.
A few months later, Stefan arrives in the Forest of Sorrows, not too far from where Vanyel died; this forest has apparently been killing bandits and other unfriendly folks, like nature's started guarding Valdemar's northern border. Weird! That's not what he's here to investigate, though. Actually, he's escaped his suicide watch and came here with a vial of poison to do himself in, Romeo and Juliet style. But something stops him.
A much younger-looking Vanyel. And a very transparent Vanyel. stef could see the bushes behind him quite clearly--
Before he had a chance to feel even a hint of fear, Van smiled--the all-too-rare, sweet smile Stef had come to cherish in their time together--a smile of pure love, and real, unshadowed happiness.
Vanyel and Yfandes are part of the forest now, guarding Valdemar's northern border, and Stefan has an important job to do: see, Vanyel really was the last Herald-Mage, because Leareth was somehow managing to kill mages when they were still babies and children, before they grew up to become mages. I don't know why now that Leareth is dead there won't be more mage babies born, but details! The point is that Stefan has to tell everyone that ordinary Heralds are just as good and important as Herald-Mages. Just because they have plain old telekinesis or healing powers instead of the ability to fling fireballs doesn't make them not as cool, capische? And Stefan has to convince people of that and then die of old age before he can be with Vanyel.
So Stefan does just that, and the epilogue depicts a doddering old Stefan wandering off into the woods and never coming out.
To this day, that gittern is grown into the tree it leaned against then, the goldenoak's roots entwined around its strings in a gentle embrace, and there are bright days, when the winds whisper through the trees, that the Forest of Sorrows seems the most inappropriate name possible.
There's an appendix of songs in the back, because Lackey at least had the sense to not include all her hobbit and elf ballads in the text of the book itself. I'm going to include the lyrics to one of them here, because I love you all just that much.
Every year Companions Choose, as they have done before,
The Chosen come with shining hopes to learn the Herald's lore.
And every year the Heralds sigh, and give the same advice--
"All those who would hold Magic's Power must then pay Magic's Price."
Oh there was danger in the North--that's all that Vanyel knew.
An enemy of power dark sought Heralds out--then slew.
But only those with Magic's Gift were slain by silent rage--
Till Vanyel of them all was left the only Herald-Mage.
Yes, from the North the danger came, beyond the Border far--
The Forest did not stay Dark Death, nor did the mountains bar.
And Vanyel cried--"We die, my liege, and know not why nor where!
So send me North, my King, that I may find the answers there!"
Then North went Vanyel--not alone, though, 'twas of little aid
A Bard was like to be to him; and Stefan was afraid--
He feared that he would fail the quest, a burden prove to be--
Dared not let Vanyel go alone to face dark sorcery.
So out beyond the Border there, beyond the forest tall,
Into the mountains deep they went that stood an icy wall--
To find the wall had cracked and found there was a passage new,
A path clean cut that winding ran a level course and true.
This path was wrought by magecraft; Vanyel knew that when he saw
The mountains hewn by power alone, a power he felt with awe--
But to what purpose? Something moved beyond them on the trail;
They watched and hid--and what they found there turned them cold and pale.
An army moved in single file, by magic cloaked and hid--
An army moved on Valdemar that marched as they were bid--
A darker force than weaponry controlled the men and place,
For Vanyel looked--and VAnyel knew an ancient evil's face.
Then VAnyel turned to Stefan, and he told the Bard to ride
To warn the folk of Valdemar--"They call me Magic's Pride.
It's time I earned the name--now go! I'll hold this army back
Until the arms of Valdemar can counter their attack."
So Stefan rode, and so it is no living tongue can tell
How Vanyel fought, nor what he wrought, nor how the Herald fell.
The Army came--but not in time to save the Herald-Mage,
Although the pass was scorched and cracked by magic power's rage.
They fought the Dark Ones back although they came on wave by wave.
No trace they found of Vanyel, nor of his Companion brave--
They only found the focus-stone, the gift of Stefan's hand--
Now blackened, burned, and shattered by the power that saved their land.
They only found the foemen who into the woods had fled
And each one by unseen, uncanny powers now lay dead.
As if the Forest had somehow bestirred itself that day--
Had Vanyel with his dying breath commanded trees to slay?
And still the forest of the North guards Valdemar from harm--
For Vanyel's dying curse is stronger far than mortal arm.
And every year the Chosen come, despite the old advice--
"All those who would be Magic's Pride must then pay Magic's Price."