If ever there was a character I wanted to meet, Alberich, current Weaponsmaster to the Herald's Collegium of Valdemar, would surely be among the top five.
I just finished rereading Exile's Honor, a book in the expansive Valdemar series. Alberich's depth of character grips me every time I read one of the books, even the ones where he's not the primary focus.
In the Arrows trilogy (Arrows of the Queen, Arrow's Flight, Arrow's Fall), the focus is on Talia, a Holderkin girl Chosen on her fourteenth birthday. When she first meets Alberich, she's terrified. One: he's man, particularly, one in authority (the Holderkin were very restrictive and harsh, men held ultimate power). Two: he carries himself like a predator, which comes from being a highly skilled warrior, and his face is seamed with scars. And three: he has to be hard on his students, because softness will only get them killed by their enemies.
And every Herald who does die, despite the training he gives them, wounds him. Guilt that perhaps he had not pushed them hard enough, or taught them some small maneuver that might have saved their lives. Guilt that he keeps buried. Old Ironface some call him, or the Great Stoneheart. Only a few (Talia among them) see below the surface to the man whose honor means everything to him, who cares more deeply than most realize, and who is ever watchful for danger to the land and people of his transplanted home.
For Valdemar is not the home of his birth. He comes from Karse, the longstanding enemy of Valdemar. As the saying goes, "Only brigands and bad weather come from Karse." Not so any more. Exile's Honor shows how Alberich came to be the Weaponsmaster. I was ecstatic when this book came out in 2002. Finally, an inside look into a character I already admired. I'd read the prologue before; it came out as a short story originally, just to show how he'd been Chosen.
Here is a man who was born as a commoner, out of wedlock no less, brought into the army, and trained as an officer. For the Sunsguard had a policy that half its officers must come from the common stock as they would have gratitude to motivate them. But politics in Karse is a cutthroat business, and men may move up in rank by undermining their peers. Alberich was not one to do so, but he had to be wary of those who would.
He also had a secret: the witchgift of foresight. Those exposed for having one of the witchgifts were burned in the Fires of Cleansing. He fought his gift, for if he went to the Fires, who would protect his people, those without the ability to defend themselves? He was one of the rare few who cared more about duty than power. Yet, his gift helped him to save his people, by showing him when and where brigands were going to strike.
After being rescued from the Fires by one of the feared Hell Horses of Karse legend, former Captain Alberich must learn what it means to be a Herald of Valdemar. He feels betrayed by the Sunpriests and yet still dutybound to the people of Karse. He is also now bound to Valdemar because of being Chosen by the very Companion who carried him away to this new land. The same Companion who now speaks in his heart and mind, filling a void he hadn't known existed. Never more alone.
A man of deep honor, he does not lightly make the transition, for he still worries for his people of Karse. Why should he have been granted a witchgift if it was considered heresy and why should he be here now among his people's enemies? People who perhaps should not be enemies after all. Perhaps it's fate, perhaps mere chance, or perhaps it was by the hand of the Sunlord Himself. Who is a common man such as himself to question the will of his God?
The rare glimpses of humor, his honor and ethics, and his faith are all part of what make him such a powerful character. Despite the number of times I read Exile's Honor or its sequel, Exile's Valor, Alberich still has the power to make me weep for his anguish and his hopes for the future, a man torn by love for two peoples at war with each other. Though an exile, he still believes in his God and prays that one day his people of Karse will share the freedom and happiness of those in his new home, that one day the corrupt will fall and the true meaning of the Writ be restored. Perhaps one day it will, for even an exile's prayers may be heard.
In addition to the spotlight on Alberich, I also want to mention something about how Lackey wraps up the end of Exile's Honor without spoiling it for those of you who will actually go read the book (which I highly recommend, it's a fantastic story and setting). Though the last couple chapters had several spots that could have been the conclusion, she kept going. And for good reason. None of them completed the internal arc of Alberich's divided loyalties, which was really the driving point to the book, external conflicts aside. The actual resolution radiates with a sense of rightness and hope.
Hope is optional for a strong ending, but that sense of rightness, ah, that is the magic of a talented writer. The magic that I strive to someday achieve in my own writing.