"Indeed?" Baron Tellian paused with his glass half-raised and looked up at his majordomo with a slight, inquiring frown. "Who is it, Kalan?" His tone added another, unspoken question—And why is his arrival important enough for you to disturb my lunch?
"It's Sir Yarran Battlecrow, Milord. He says he carries an urgent message from Lord Warden Glanharrow," the majordomo said, in a calm, unflustered voice, and Tellian's eyes narrowed. Then he nodded.
"Thank you, Kalan," he said. "Please have him shown into my study. See to it that he's offered a chance to wash up first, if he so desires, and that refreshments are available to him. Tell him I'll join him there as soon as I can."
"Of course, Milord," Kalan replied, then coughed gently. "In fact, I'd already given those instructions."
"You're entirely too efficient, Kalan," Tellian said with a smile. "Certainly more efficient than I deserve."
"It's kind of you to say so, anyway, Milord," Kalan murmured, and withdrew with a slight bow.
Tellian gazed down into his wineglass for several seconds, then took a sip and set the glass on the table. He wiped his mouth with a linen napkin and looked around the circle of his family and guests.
"Fortunately, I think we were about finished here," he said.
"And if we weren't," Baroness Hanatha said, "we'd all pretend we were, anyway."
"Of course you would, my dear. And so cheerfully and so well that I would never even suspect how I'd trodden on your enjoyment of the meal for reasons of state."
The two of them shared a smile, but there was more than a hint of anxiety behind the baroness' jade eyes. Tellian saw it, and reached out to touch the back of her hand in brief, wordless reassurance. Then he looked at Bahzell and Brandark.
"It doesn't take a wizard or a mage to divine the reason for Sir Yarran's visit. I think it might be as well for the two of you to join us in the study, if that would be convenient."
"I'm thinking it would be convenient enough for the pair of us," Bahzell rumbled. "But it's in my mind that Lord Festian and Sir Yarran might be minded for him to have a word or two with you in private without such as us listening in."
"It might," Tellian agreed. "On the other hand, the Gullet opens on Glanharrow. That means your father, and so you, Bahzell, have a legitimate interest in anything that happens there. Especially if it concerns the man who was named to replace that idiot Redhelm. Don't tell me you haven't been expecting a messenger like this for weeks, man. Just as I have."
"Well, as to that, I'll admit as how I'm more than a mite surprised he's waited this long to be sending for help. I've no sources to match the ones you've no doubt got, but those I do have have been telling me as how things have been getting steadily worse in Glanharrow. And just as you—and, no doubt, Lord Festian and Sir Yarran—I've no least doubt as how it's the doing of some of your folk who weren't so very happy to be seeing Festian replace Mathian."
"Who would just happen to be the same people who aren't too happy about the novel concept of Sothōii and hradani living in a state which resembles peace," Brandark added dryly.
"Exactly." Tellian nodded. "You have both the right and the reason to know what sorts of problems your neighbor might be experiencing, if only so that you're forewarned if . . . unanticipated changes require you to protect yourselves. More to the point, and selfishly, from my perspective, you may be able to offer some additional insight, Bahzell." Bahzell twitched his ears questioningly, and Tellian chuckled. "I happen to know that your sister Marglyth's agents in Glanharrow considerably outnumber my own, Bahzell, despite that rather diplomatic comment of yours on our relative sources. Which is as it should be, really."
"I suppose it is possible I'm after hearing the occasional tidbit, or rumor," Bahzell conceded with a grin.
"I'm sure," Tellian said dryly. "But whether you have anything to add or not, I want you there. And you, too, I think, Trianal," he continued, looking at the dark-haired young man seated at the foot of the table.
Sir Trianal Bowmaster was the oldest son of Tellian's younger brother. Garlayn Bowmaster had married very young, but, then, Garlayn had always been the quintessential, impetuous Sothōii. He'd also died very young, in a training accident which had resulted largely from that same impetuosity, leaving three young sons and a daughter behind. Tellian had accepted Trianal for training in the military arts when he was only ten, and he'd just turned nineteen only two months before. Despite his youth, he was a thinker, unlike his father, who'd already demonstrated an insight into tactics beyond his years. He'd earned his knighthood, not simply had it handed to him, although he was still short on experience in the field. But for all of his good points, Trianal was considerably more conservative than his uncle. It had taken him quite a while to come to terms with Tellian's "surrender" to Bahzell, and Bahzell suspected that he still harbored some prickly resentments.
"Me, Uncle?" Trianal sounded surprised, and Tellian nodded.
"You know as much as any of my officers about the situation in Glanharrow, and I trust your discretion. Besides, I think I'd like to get you more actively involved in supporting Lord Festian."
"Yes, Milord," Trianal said, and his face flushed just a bit.
So he's after noticing his uncle's tone, Bahzell thought, and hid a mental chuckle as he recalled times his own father had done the same sort of thing to him. "Whacking some wit into him," as Prince Bahnak had described it. And I never enjoyed it at all, at all, Bahzell thought, so more power to the lad that he can be taking his whack without so much as a wince.
"Good," Tellian said, giving his nephew a nod, then folded his napkin. He set it beside his plate, pushed back his chair, rose, and kissed his wife's cheek. Then he glanced at Leeana and smiled crookedly.
"I'm not inviting you this time, daughter of mine," he told her. Brief disappointment flickered in her eyes, but it came and went so quickly it was more imagined than seen, and she returned his smile. "After all," he continued, "I'm quite sure you have your own sources. Come to the library before bed tonight. Let me know what you've been able to pick up about Sir Yarran's visit on your own."
"Yes, Poppa," she murmured in her most dutiful tone, green eyes glinting wickedly, and Tellian laughed. He stroked one hand over her gleaming, golden-red hair, then returned his attention to Bahzell and Brandark.
"Such a submissive child," he said, shaking his head regretfully. "Not a spark of spirit, not an ounce of spunk anywhere in her."
"Aye," Bahzell said, smiling as Leeana stuck out her tongue at him. "I've noticed as how all of your womenfolk seem to be beaten down, Milord."
"Every one of them," Tellian sighed, and then twitched as his "beaten down" wife poked him shrewdly in the ribs.
* * *
Sir Yarran climbed out of the comfortable chair with something that looked rather more like a respectful nod than a bow as Tellian, Bahzell, Brandark, and Trianal entered the study. He'd obviously availed himself of the offer of a wash up, and changed out of his riding boots, but there were still traces of the Wind Plain's omnipresent springtime mud on his trousers. A tray on the small table beside his chair bore the remains of a fat sandwich, a bowl of thick, savory vegetable soup, a couple of apple cores, and a mostly empty stein of beer, and he brushed a dusting of crumbs from his tunic as he straightened up.
"Welcome, Sir Yarran!" Tellian said, striding across the study to take the older man's right hand and forearm in a warrior's clasp. "I trust my people have seen to your needs adequately?"
"Oh, aye, that they have." Yarran patted his flat belly with his free hand and grinned. "They wanted to sit me down to an entire meal, but I told them a sandwich and some soup would do me fine, and so it did. Thank you."
"You're quite welcome," Tellian assured him, giving his forearm a final squeeze before he released it. Then the baron settled into a chair of his own, waving an invitation for Yarran to sit back down. The knight was obviously pleased by the gesture, but he chose to remain standing, in a sort of modified version of the Sothōii stand-easy, as the others found seats facing him.
"I have no doubt you bring me less than pleasant news from Lord Warden Festian," Tellian continued, "but you are always welcome in my house, nonetheless. I know from my correspondence with him that he has complete faith in you, and if he does, then so do I."
"Uh, thank you. Thank you, Milord Baron." The gray-haired knight seemed almost flustered, as if the praise were unexpected. Then he drew a deep breath and looked past Tellian to the others.
"This is my nephew, Sir Trianal, Sir Yarran," Tellian said in answer to the unasked question. "He's one of my officers, and he spent the summer before last with Sir Kelthys, so he's familiar with Glanharrow's geography. And I invited Prince Bahzell and Lord Brandark to accompany us for much the same reasons. They, too, are familiar with Glanharrow. In fact, I believe you met both of them there in the aftermath of the previous Lord Glanharrow's . . . expedition down the Gullet?"
"Aye, Milord, that I did." Sir Yarran's lips twitched in a smile, and he flexed his left arm. "As a matter of fact, Prince Bahzell and I met during it." He flexed his arm again. "I was just a mite more fortunate than some of the other poor buggers who met up with him that day."
"No lasting damage, I'm hoping? " Bahzell said politely, watching the knight flex his arm for a third time.
"None the healers couldn't put right, Milord Champion," Yarran replied.
"And no hard feelings, I trust," Tellian said. Yarran looked at the baron quickly, his expression almost shocked.
"Of course not, Milord!" He shook his head for emphasis. "'Twasn't anything personal, for either of us. I was with Sir Festian—well, Lord Festian, now—and I never thought that trip was a good idea to begin with. Even if I had, I got off lighter than any man should expect to if he's daft enough to cross swords with a champion of Tomanāk!"
"It was," Yarran agreed. "Enough hate can curdle anyone, Milord, and the gods know there's been hate enough from both ends of the Gullet, time to time. Course, only a fool lets hate drive him, especially when there's blood to be spilled if he does."
"A wise observation," Tellian said, glancing ever so briefly at his nephew's profile from the corner of his eye. "I wish more people shared your opinion," he added, and Yarran shrugged.
"Can't do much about people who insist on using stable muckings for brains, Milord," he said philosophically. Then chuckled. "Except, of course, for kicking their arses out of their chairs and putting someone else into them. Which is by the way of bringing me to the reason I'm here."
"Then I suppose we should get to it," Tellian said, and pointed rather more emphatically at the chair Yarran had gotten out of. "Sit yourself back down and tell us what Lord Festian needs."
"As to that, Milord Baron," Yarran replied in a voice which held much less humor than it had a moment before, "I'm afraid what he really needs is something in the way of a miracle."
He sat obediently back down, although Bahzell and Brandark both had the impression that he was uncomfortable sitting in Tellian's presence.
"That bad, is it?" the baron asked with a frown.
"If it's not now, it's headed that way, Milord," Yarran told him frankly. "We've had minor problems, almost pinpricks, from the beginning. That started the day Lord Festian was confirmed in his wardenship, as you might say. But it's gotten worse. In the last couple of weeks, we've had two major cattle raids and a raid on one of our stud farms."
"Cattle and horses both?" Tellian mused aloud.
"Aye, Milord. Before that, it was sheep, but it's clear as the nose on my face they're getting more ambitious. And they're not just thieves, either, whatever they'd like us to think so far. They've already managed to burn a handful of barns, despite the rain, and Lord Festian has started posting armed guards to protect our larger herds and farms. To my mind, it's but a matter of time before they decide to raid one of those herds or farms, and when they do, there's going to be blood on someone's blade. And," he added more grimly, "on someone else's hands."
"I see." Tellian leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. "I wish I hadn't already come to much the same conclusions on my own," he said. "But from your tone of voice, I suspect you have your own suspicions about who the brains behind this campaign might be. Do you?" he asked bluntly.
"Well, as to that, Milord," Yarran said slowly, obviously considering his words with care, "yes, I do. And so does Lord Festian, though I think he's less eager than I to be naming names." The marshal shrugged. "I'm naught but a common-born fighting man, when all's said—Lord Festian, now, his word carries more weight than ever mine could. I'm thinking he knows that, and he's not wishful to be accusing anyone until he's the proof firmly in hand, as it were."
"Very wise of him," Tellian agreed. "But if you have any suspicions, I want to hear them."
"Well, as you've asked, Milord, it's in my mind that Lord Dathian wasn't so very happy to see Lord Festian named to lord it over him. That's how he sees it, leastwise. And I hope you'll pardon my bluntness, Milord, but for all that Dathian was first in line to kiss your hand—aye, and would've kissed something else of yours, if you take my meaning—when you turned up in the Gullet that morning, he'd also been one of Mathian's hangers-on. Until you did turn up, he'd been breathing fire and farting flame about all he'd been set to do when we reached Hurgrum. Then, all of a sudden, there he was, the very spitting image of peace and reason."
He grimaced distastefully, and Tellian scratched his neatly trimmed beard thoughtfully.
"Dathian, hm?" he mused. Dathian Halberd, Lord Warden of the Fens, was one of his less savory vassals. The man reminded Tellian of a snake crossed with a weasel, and Dathgar, Tellian's courser, couldn't stand him. But in some ways, that only made Tellian less ready to seize upon him as an object of suspicion. It was dangerous for a powerful noble to fall into the trap of spending his suspicion on obvious targets. Even if he was right, and those he suspected were up to no good, concentrating on them was only too likely to distract him and keep him from noticing the actions of more outwardly honest and trustworthy traitors until it was too late.
"You met Dathian during your time with Kelthys, didn't you, Trianal?" he asked his nephew after a moment, and the young man nodded.
"Yes, Un— Milord Baron." Trianal cleared his throat, then continued more naturally. "I didn't get to know him well. He didn't have a great deal of time to waste on someone too young to know which end of a sword to hold."
The youngster's voice was absolutely neutral, but Tellian had to raise a hand to hide a smile. He could just hear Dathian saying those exact words, even picture the sneer that would curl his lip as he said them.
"I see," he said, when he was certain he could trust his voice. "But you did meet him?" Trianal nodded. "Very well, did your impression of him match Sir Yarran's?"
"I didn't actually see him when Redhelm headed down the Gullet," Trianal said with scrupulous accuracy. "Not until I arrived with you and Hathan, at any rate. But given what I saw of him summer before last, I'd say Sir Yarran is probably being too kind to him."
"Well, that's blunt enough, at any rate," Tellian murmured, and quirked an eyebrow as Bahzell stirred in his chair. "Yes, Milord Champion?"
"If you'll pardon my sticking my own finger into your pie, Milord Baron," the massive Horse Stealer rumbled, "it's quite a few things I've heard of this Dathian, as well, and not a one of 'em good."
"To be honest, I could say the same myself," Tellian agreed. He stroked his beard for another moment, then cocked his head at Yarran.
"From what I've seen of you, Sir Yarran, I doubt very much that you'd be pointing a finger at someone just because you didn't care for his manner."
"I'd try not to, any road, Milord. But not only was Dathian sucking up to Mathian before you arrived to spoil the party, but whoever's been raiding our cattle and horses has been giving us the slip by disappearing with them in the Bogs. Now, that's as nasty a stretch as you're like to find anywhere on the Wind Plain, all full of mud and water and a few patches of quicksand. Yet whoever's been using it for a highroad for cattle's managed to do it without leaving a single mired beef to point his tracks." The marshal shook his head. "I was second in command to Lord Festian when he commanded Redhelm's scouts, Milord. It was my business to find my way through bad going, and I've spent more time in the Bogs than most of Lord Festian's men. But I'll tell you plain, I'd not be able to get through there so slick. It would take someone who knew his way through them like the back of his own hand to get herds that size through at all, much less without losses, and Dathian's holding lies smack in the middle of the Bogs. As a matter of fact, it's one of your border holdings. It backs up against Golden Vale. In the South Riding."
"Golden Vale. That would be Lord Warden Saratic, wouldn't it?" It was a statement, not a question, and Yarran nodded silently.
"That's a nasty thought, Sir Yarran," the baron said after a moment. "Not that that necessarily means you're wrong. Especially given that Saratic was so happy to give his cousin Mathian a refuge after the King stripped him of his wardenship."
" 'Happy' might be putting it just a bit strongly, Milord." Yarran said with a grim chuckle. "He was ready enough to take Mathian in, but he wasn't half pleased about it. And he'd some remarkably warm things to say about you—and about you, Prince Bahzell—at the time."
"But he's one of Baron Cassan's vassals, isn't he?" Brandark asked.
"Indeed he is," Tellian agreed. "Which, I'm very much afraid, only means Sir Yarran's point is even better taken. Cassan and I aren't exactly boon companions."
He snorted, and Bahzell and Brandark grimaced. Trianal kept his own expression carefully blank, but the bitter enmity between Cassan and Tellian was proverbial. For almost two decades now, they had been locked in combat for domination of the Royal Council, although, up until Mathian Redhelm's attempted invasion of Hurgrum, Tellian had been slowly but steadily gaining the ascendancy.
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find him involved in something like this," Tellian continued. "In fact, I'm fairly certain he used Saratic to help encourage his cousin Mathian's . . . indiscretion in the Gullet. And whether he had a hand in that particular fiasco or not, I imagine it would be all but impossible for him to resist this temptation. But if he is involved, I'm certain he's covered his tracks carefully."
"I don't think I'm after being all that fond of Baron Cassan," Bahzell mused out loud.
"Fair enough," Tellian said. "He thinks the only good hradani is one being used for well-rotted fertilizer."
"Even so," Brandark said thoughtfully, "however carefully he's covered his tracks, he's still running quite a risk if he's involved himself. I know you Sothōii are almost as fond of blood feuds as we hradani are, and I've been told cattle raids and horse stealing are among your minor lord wardens' favorite sports. But if it ever comes to light that one of your barons has been attacking another baron's lands, the consequences could be pretty extreme . . . for everyone."
"You've a way with words, Lord Brandark." Yarran's tone was dust dry. "Take us back to the Troubles, that could, like in King Markhos' grandsire's day, with every lord's hand turned against every other lord."
"I don't think Cassan would take things that far—not intentionally, at any rate," Tellian said, shaking his head. "That's why I'm certain he's covered his involvement very carefully, if he is involved. Still, I can see why it would be attractive to him. Especially if Dathian is doing the actual raiding."
"Aye, Milord." Yarran nodded his head vigorously. "If he discredits Lord Festian, then he discredits you, because you're the one who was willing to name a simple knight lord warden in that idiot Mathian's stead. And if he can discredit you there, then he's a wedge to discredit you elsewhere. In the meantime, if anything slips, Dathian's his scapegoat. And if throwing Dathian to the hounds isn't enough, then he's Saratic next in line. And Saratic, as Mathian's cousin and what passes for the head of the House of Redhelm these days, makes a splendid decoy. He's reason enough to hate Festian all on his own, and Cassan has more than enough members of the Council in his pocket to protect Saratic from serious consequences as long as Saratic keeps silent about any involvement of Cassan's."
"You're right, Sir Yarran," Tellian said, and regarded the grizzled warrior with speculative interest. Yarran saw the look in his eyes and it was his turn to snort.
"There's no cause to be looking at me all thoughtful, Milord Baron. It's not as if anyone in the entire Kingdom doesn't know how much Cassan hates you. Maybe it's not my place to be speaking my mind so clear, but it doesn't take a genius to see how he's a whole layered defense in place if any of his plans should slip."
"Perhaps not," Tellian agreed. "But don't sell yourself short, Sir Yarran. There are members of the Council who either can't—or won't—see the same logic."
"Maybe that's because they've not spent their entire lives living down on your border with Cassan," Yarran said with grim humor. "It's an amazing thing how that . . . focuses your thoughts."
Tellian nodded appreciatively, but his gray eyes were distant and the others could almost physically feel the intensity of his thoughts. He sat that way for over two full minutes, then shook himself, like a dog who'd just stepped in from the rain.
"Well, Sir Yarran," he said, his eyes refocusing on the knight. "I can see why Lord Festian sent you. On several levels." He smiled under his brushy mustache as Yarran's eyebrows quirked. "He had to send someone to explain what sort of help he needs, and why," the baron continued. "And since he did, he showed excellent judgment in sending someone who understands the situation as well as you obviously do. I must confess that I already knew some of what you've told me, but I hadn't realized the whole of it. I'm going to require a day or two to think about it before I decide how best to help Lord Warden Festian deal with it. I assure you, however, that it will be dealt with."
There was a world of determination in his choice of verbs, and Bahzell felt himself nodding in approval.
"In the meantime," Tellian said, slapping the arms of his chair and then thrusting himself up out of it, "consider yourself my honored guest, Sir Yarran. I'm very pleased to have you here, and I'll ask Trianal to escort you to the suite Kalan has assigned to you. Once you've had a chance to settle in, I think it would be an excellent idea for you to spend some time speaking with my own senior officers. I'd be obliged if you—and you, Trianal—" he glanced at his nephew "would leave Baron Cassan out of it, but feel free to share any of your other information or conclusions with them, including your thoughts about Dathian and Lord Saratic." He smiled thinly. "Most of my people are smart enough to figure out who'd have to be behind Saratic, so there's no need to be any more specific about it. And unlike some nobles, I've discovered that keeping the people who are supposed to help you handle any wars or other little unpleasantnesses which come your way as fully informed as possible is a good idea. At least they're more likely to keep you from stepping on your . . . sword that way."