Bahzell Bahnakson stood on the battlements of Hill Guard Castle, gazing off into the distance and worrying. Brandark Brandarkson stood at his left elbow and helped him do it.
"Why do I have the feeling this was a really bad idea?" the Bloody Sword hradani murmured.
"Coming up here?" Bahzell looked down at him and cocked an eyebrow, and Brandark shook his head with a tight grin. It wasn't raining. In fact, the sun shone bright, and clear blue patches showed through fitful breaks in the clouds. But the blustery wind was much stronger up here on the walls, where no obstacles blocked or abated its power, and both hradanis' warrior braids blew out behind them.
"No," Brandark said. He gestured at the road, stretching off to the east. "I meant Tellian's haring off this way."
"It's not as if he'd any other choice, is it now?" Bahzell replied, and Brandark shrugged.
"The fact that something's the only choice someone has, doesn't make it a good idea when he does it," he pointed out. "Especially not when he has as many enemies as Tellian does. I don't like the thought of his dashing about out there with no more than a score of bodyguards, Bahzell."
"First, it's only by the gods' grace that he's any bodyguards at allwith him," Bahzell snorted. "Once Tarith turned up and he'd confirmation of all Leeana had done, he was all for heading out with naught but Hathan beside him. Now that, I'm thinking, is something as most anyone would think was after being a bad idea."
"You know," Brandark observed, "you're developing quite a gift for understatement, Bahzell."
Bahzell only snorted again, louder, but both of them knew he was right. Even Tellian had known that much, although both Hathan and Hanatha had found themselves forced to sit on him—almost literally—before he'd admitted it. That had been harder for Hanatha than for his wind brother, but frantic as she was over her daughter's safety, she was also the wife of one great noble and the daughter of another. Despite the unmatchable speed with which any wind rider's courser gifted him, the Lord Warden of the West Riding had no business at all putting himself at risk by gallivanting around the countryside unprotected. It was entirely possible that one of his enemies might be keeping an eye on his comings and goings with an eye towards a quiet little assassination, assuming he was foolish enough to offer an opening, and not even a courser could outrun an arrow. Besides, as Hathan had grimly pointed out, Leeana had stolen enough of a lead that it was unlikely even coursers could overtake her short of her destination, so there was no reason to dash out like reckless fools.
"Second," Bahzell continued after a moment, "that's his daughter out there, Brandark. He's a noble and a ruler, aye. But he's after being a father before he's any of those other things." He shook his head. "He'll not give over, no matter what."
"But is that really what's best for Leeana?" Brandark asked more quietly. Bahzell looked at him again, sharply, and the Bloody Sword shrugged. "I know he loves her, Bahzell. And I know he wants her safely home again. But Leeana's no fool. Whatever other people may think, you know—and so do her parents—that she didn't do this on a whim. If she thought it through as carefully as I'm sure she did, perhaps what she's doing is actually for the best."
Bahzell grunted. He'd thought the same thing himself as he remembered the pain, and the fear—and not for herself alone, he realized now—in a pair of jade-green eyes. But he knew that even if Tellian had come to the exact same conclusion, it wouldn't have made any difference to his determination to protect the daughter he loved from the consequences of her own decision.
"It might be you've a point," he said finally. "I'll not deny I've wondered the same. But in Tellian's boots, I'd make the selfsame choice, and well I know it." He shook his head again. "It's a hard thing, Brandark. A hard thing."
They fell silent again, gazing off into the wind, and wondering what was happening out there beyond the eastern horizon.
* * *
Bahzell looked up in surprise. The delicious odors of one of Tala's dinners—rich, hot curry, chicken, beef, and potatoes—drifted tantalizingly upward from the bowls and dishes on the table before him, and evening was busily giving way to night outside the window. He'd invited Gharnal and Hurthang to join him and Brandark for supper, but he hadn't expected any other visitors this night. And he certainly hadn't expected to see Sir Jahlahan Swordspinner turn up in his quarters in person.
"Aye, Sir Jahlahan?" he said mildly, setting down his knife and fork. "And how might it be as I could be of service?"
He waved at a chair on the other side of the table, inviting the human to be seated, but Swordspinner remained standing.
"I apologize for interrupting your supper, Milord Champion. And yours, Milords." He nodded with abrupt, almost spastic courtesy to Brandark and the two other Horse Stealers, and Bahzell's ears pricked as the jagged edges of the other man's voice registered. Sir Jahlahan was the seneschal of Hill Guard Castle. In Tellian's absence, he commanded the garrison not simply of Hill Guard, but of Balthar itself, and Tellian Bowmaster hadn't picked someone who was prone to panic for that post. Yet at this moment, that was what Sir Jahlahan appeared dangerously close to doing.
"There's no need to be apologizing, Sir Jahlahan," Bahzell said after a moment, glancing at the other hradani. "I've no doubt only pressing need could have caused you to."
"You're not wrong there, Milord Champion," Swordspinner agreed in that same, jagged voice. "We've just received a messenger from Lord Warden Edinghas of Warm Springs," he continued. "That's one of the West Riding's smaller holdings, up on the northeast border. Up between the west fork of the Spear River and the shore of the North Ice Sister."
He paused, and Bahzell nodded his understanding of the geography. That meant this Warm Springs was almost as far north as the southern edge of Hope's Bane Glacier, about as far as you could get from Balthar and remain in the West Riding. Yet even as he nodded, he had the odd feeling Swordspinner hadn't paused to be sure Bahzell was following him. It was more as if the seneschal needed to pause. As if whatever had brought him here was terrible enough that he needed time to steel himself for the actual explanation.
"Milord Champion, Lord Edinghas' message is—Well, it's one I don't have the least idea how to answer. I doubt Milord Baron himself would know! But this much I am certain of: if any man can know what to do, it's a champion of Tomanāk. Please, Milord. I need your help—badly."
* * *
Bahzell's expression was as grim as his thoughts as he and Brandark followed Sir Jahlahan into the seneschal's office. He'd considered bringing Gharnal and Hurthang, as well, but decided against it. This meeting might be difficult enough without piling that many hradani into it. Besides, if what his instincts—and that indefinable link which always connected him, however lightly, to Tomanāk—were telling him was true, someone had needed to go and alert the Order's sword brothers that they might be needed.
Swordspinner's was the next door down the corridor from Tellian's own office, and it was only marginally smaller than the baron's. Despite that, and despite the fact that Sothōii were taller than most humans, Bahzell felt cramped and trapped, painfully aware of the ceiling close above his head.
He'd felt that way constantly when he first arrived at Hill Guard, but it was a sensation he'd gotten over with the help of familiarity. Now that comforting sense of the familiar had disappeared. The dreadful message Jahlahan had summarized for him on the walk to his office had stripped it away, and the weight of the castle's stonework seemed to press down upon him.
The human waiting in Swordspinner's office was short for a Sothōii, a good four inches shorter than Brandark, much less Bahzell. But he was a tough, weathered--looking man, with hard muscles and a face wind, sun, and winter had darkened to the hue of old leather. It was impossible for Bahzell to estimate his age accurately, but he was certain the human was at least several years older than he was himself.
And it was also quickly apparent that this was not one of Tellian's retainers who approved of hradani.
Lord Edinghas' messenger snapped to his feet, his exhausted face taut with outrage, as soon as he laid eyes on Bahzell and Brandark. His bone-deep weariness had clearly undermined whatever normal reserve he might have, and he opened his mouth angrily. No doubt he intended to demand to know what Swordspinner thought he was doing bringing hradani into his mission to Hill Guard, and Bahzell couldn't honestly blame him. Not given the long and bloody history which lay between the Sothōii and the Horse Stealer clans. Bahzell didn't begin to have all the details, but the horrifying bits and pieces Swordspinner had shared with him on the walk here were more than enough to explain both the messenger's exhaustion and his anger at suddenly finding himself face-to-face with hradani.
But despite all of that, the man managed to clamp his jaws before his anger found words to express itself. Bahzell was impressed by the other man's self-control. He doubted he could have matched it, had their circumstances been reversed. And he was suddenly glad he'd sent Gharnal off with Hurthang to alert the Order.
"Alfar Axeblade, be known to Prince Bahzell Bahnakson, son of Prince Bahnak of the Horse Stealer Hradani," Swordspinner said, his tone formal. Obviously, he, too, recognized Axeblade's struggle with his emotions, and he kept his own voice carefully under control as he added, "And champion of Tomanāk."
"Champion of Tomanāk?" Axeblade repeated. Despite all he could do, there was as much incredulity as surprise in his tone, and his weathered face flushed darker as he realized how he'd given himself away.
"Aye," Bahzell rumbled, his deep voice measured and dispassionate. "And I'll not blame you for feeling a mite . . . surprised, Master Axeblade." He produced a wry smile. "I'm thinking you couldn't possibly be more surprised than I was when himself first turned up and told me as how such as I had the makings of a champion! Yet such I am, and if there's aught I can be doing to serve you or Lord Warden Edinghas against the Dark, then that I will be doing."
There was a tang of iron promise in his voice. Axeblade heard it, but so many centuries of mutual hatred couldn't be washed away so quickly.
"I hope you'll not take this wrongly . . . Milord Champion," he said, after a moment. He seemed to have trouble getting the title out, as if the words were sharp-edged enough to cut his tongue. "But Warm Springs isn't exactly what you might call the very heart of the West Riding. Often enough, news takes a while getting to us, and we'd not heard aught about you. So if I could be asking, what's a hradani doing here?"
"And what's a hradani doing pretending as he's a champion of Tomanāk, for that matter?" Bahzell added dryly, and Axeblade flushed again. But he also nodded stubbornly, and Bahzell chuckled.
"Let be, Sir Jahlahan," Bahzell interrupted. The seneschal looked at him sharply, and the Horse Stealer shrugged. "In Master Axeblade's place, I'd not be so polite," he said dryly, and returned his attention to the other man.
"What I'm after doing here is just a mite complicated," he said. "It's glad enough I'll be to explain it all to you, and to Lord Edinghas, assuming as how I have the opportunity. For now, let's just be saying that Baron Tellian and I—aye, and my father, as well—are after doing what we can to be keeping our swords out of one another's bellies for a change. That's what I'm doing here at Hill Guard. But what you're really asking, Master Axeblade, is why a Horse Stealer should be offering to help any Sothōii—or coming within a league or three of any courser ever born. Or, for that matter, why in the world you should be trusting such as me to do any such thing."
"Aye, that I am," Axeblade said after a moment. "Your folk aren't named 'Horse Stealer' for naught . . . Milord. And Tomanāk Himself knows how many of our horses you've stolen, slaughtered, and eaten," he continued, matching bluntness to bluntness, and Bahzell smiled more naturally. This man might hate hradani, but Bahzell recognized a kindred soul when he met one.
"That we have," he acknowledged. "And, truth to tell, there's more than enough of my folk as would cheerfully do the same, even now. But my father's not after being one of them, and no more am I. We've done each other harm enough over the years, I'm thinking, Master Axeblade. Time we tried another road, one where neither of us is after raiding the other."
Axeblade looked as if he found the entire concept impossible to grasp, but at least he was polite enough not to call Bahzell insane.
"I can't be undoing all Horse Stealers are having done to the Sothōii," Bahzell continued. "And no more can you—or Baron Tellian, himself—undo a single thing as Sothōii are having done to us. But if we're to stop killing one another once and for all, I'm thinking as how it will have to start somewhere. So why not here, and now? And if it's Tomanāk's little joke to choose such as me to be playing peacemaker to you Sothōii, then it's little choice I have but to be doing the same for the coursers. Or do you think Horse Stealers are daft enough to think we could be after making peace with one and not the other?"
"That sounds mighty fine and reasonable, Milord," Axeblade said in a tone he managed to keep neutral. "I'm not so very sure the coursers will think it does, though. They've long memories, too, you know."
"So they do," Bahzell agreed. "And I suppose it's likely enough one of them might like to feel a little Horse Stealer crushed under his toes. Mind you, I'd not think it such a marvelous idea, but I can see how it might be having a little appeal for a courser. Still and all, Baron Tellian's courser, and Hathan Shieldarm's courser, have been after being civil enough." He shrugged. "I'll take my chances that other coursers will be being reasonable enough to give one of Tomanāk's champions time enough to at least be saying a few words in his own defense before they're after turning him into Wind Plain mud.
"And whatever it is they may think about the notion," he went on in a voice which was suddenly devoid of any humor at all, "what Sir Jahlahan's told me of your tale is after leaving me no choice. I'll not pretend I've any clear idea of who or what might have been able to do such as you've described. But this I do know, Master Axeblade—whoever, or whatever, it may be, it's flat my business to be stopping it. And stop it I will."
Axeblade started to say something more, then stopped, looking at Bahzell's expression. Several seconds passed in silence, and then Lord Edinghas' messenger nodded slowly.
"I believe you will, Milord Champion," he said. "Or die trying, any road. To my mind, that's the most anyone could ask of any man . . . human or hradani. So if you're daft enough to ride into the middle of a holding full of Sothōii and coursers who're none of them going to be happy to see hradani, now of all times, then I suppose I'm daft enough to take you there."
"Take us there, you mean," Brandark put in. Axeblade looked at him, and the Bloody Sword shrugged. "He's not very bright, but he is my friend," he said lightly. "I'd never forgive myself if I let him out without a leash and he suffered a mischief."
"As well take two hradani—or a dozen—as one," Axeblade agreed with an answering shrug. "I don't know who's going to explain any of this to the coursers, though!" he added.
"Well, as to that," Bahzell said, "I've taken the liberty of asking Sir Jahlahan to send word to Deep Water. Would it happen you and your lord are after knowing Sir Kelthys and his courser?"
"Aye," Axeblade said slowly, his expression thoughtful.
"So am I," Bahzell said. "And I'm thinking as how Kelthys will vouch for me to you two-legged Sothōii, while Walasfro is after talking fast enough to the other coursers to keep me untrodden on. Besides, like as not we'll be needing him if the surviving coursers are to tell us what happened out there."
"That we will," Axeblade agreed.
"Well, then," Bahzell said. "With Walasfro under him, Kelthys can be making the trip to Warm Springs from Deep Water faster than we can get there from Balthar. Even allowing for the time to be getting word to him in the first place, it's in my mind he'll be there before ever we are, or close enough behind to be treading on our heels. So if you're fit for the saddle, then I'm thinking it's past time we were on the road. You can be telling me the details while we travel."
"Milord Champion, Master Axeblade is—" Sir Jahlahan began, but Bahzell raised one hand.
"It's plain as the nose on my face—or on Brandark's—as how this man's worn himself to the bone getting here, Sir Jahlahan. I'll not let him push himself hard enough to be doing himself in, but no more will I insult him by pretending every hour isn't more precious than gold."
Bahzell held Axeblade's eyes levelly, and the horse trainer nodded slowly.
"I'll ask you to be finding him a fresh horse while I send word to Hurthang, and to be seeing to it as Brandark is mounted and we've supplies for the trip," Bahzell said. "And then we'll be leaving."