Edinghas Bardiche knew his expression wasn't the most tactful one possible, but there wasn't a great deal he could do about that. He was too busy gazing in disbelief at his newly arrived . . . "guests."
He stood in the muddy paddock outside the main stable, acutely aware of the watching eyes of the Warm Springs armsmen currently on duty, still ringing the building protectively. Alfar Axeblade stood before him, holding the reins of a borrowed horse, and eight hradani stood behind Alfar—seven of them in the colors of the Order of Tomanāk. It was remotely possible, Edinghas thought, that there could have been a more unlikely sight somewhere in the Kingdom. He just couldn't imagine where it might have been. Or when.
Finally, after endless seconds of silent consternation, he succeeded in goading his tongue to life.
"I crave your pardon . . . Milord Champion," he managed. "I must confess that when I dispatched Alfar to the Baron, I didn't anticipate that he might return with a— That is, I didn't expect a champion of Tomanāk."
His attention was focused on the mountainous hradani looming before him, yet a corner of his eye caught the expression on Alfar's face. He couldn't begin to sort out all of the emotions wrapped up in that expression, but embarrassment and something almost like anger seemed to be a part of them. His retainer opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the hradani glanced at him with a tiny head shake, and Alfar's mouth closed with an almost audible click.
"What you're meaning, Milord Warden," the hradani replied in a deep, rumbling bass perfectly suited to his huge stature, "is that you were never expecting a hradani champion."
Edinghas felt his tired face heat, but the hradani sounded almost amused. It might be a dry, biting amusement, but it wasn't the anger the lord warden's self--correction might all too easily have provoked.
"Yes, I suppose that is what I meant," he admitted.
"Well," the hradani said, "I won't say as how that's after making me feel all warm and cuddly inside, Milord. On the other hand, I can't be saying as how it's after surprising me, either. Like enough, I'd feel the same, if the boot were on the other foot. Still and all, here I stand, and it's in my mind that what's happened here is after being the sort of thing as one of Himself's champions ought to be looking into."
"I certainly can't argue with that," Edinghas said. "But I hope I won't offend you by saying that my armsmen are likely to be even more . . . surprised than me."
"Milord." Alfar's voice was polite but firm, and Edinghas looked at him, surprised by the interruption. "Milord," Alfar repeated when he was certain he had his liege's attention, "Sir Jahlahan, Baron Tellian's seneschal, personally vouches for Prince Bahzell in the Baron's name and explains how he came to be in Balthar when I arrived there." His wave indicated the still unopened message from Swordspinner in Edinghas' hand. "And for myself," he continued, even more firmly, "I can only say that, hradani or no, these men have not spared themselves for a moment in their determination to reach Warm Springs as quickly as possible. Milord, they ran all the way from Balthar."
Edinghas' eyebrows rose involuntarily. Sothōii retainers and freeholders, especially in a northern holding like Warm Springs, were a sturdy, independent lot. It had something to do with endless hours spent all alone on horseback in the grassy immensity of the Wind Plain—or in the howling chaos of a midwinter blizzard. Yet for all that, the note of near rebuke in Alfar's voice surprised him.
He shook himself, then looked back at the hradani. No, he told himself, at Prince Bahzell.
"I crave your pardon once again, Milord Champion," he said, and this time his voice sounded closer to normal in his own ears. "Alfar's right. I ought to at least read Lord Swordspinner's dispatch. And however surprised I may have been by your . . . unexpected arrival, that surprise doesn't excuse my rudeness."
"I'd not be calling it rude," Bahzell replied. He smiled slowly. "I'd not be calling it exactly the warmest welcome I've ever had, but it's not after being the coldest, either. Not by a long road, Milord."
"It's good of you to say so." Edinghas felt himself returning Bahzell's smile. Then he gave himself another little shake. "With your permission, Prince Bahzell, I'll ask Alfar to escort you to the manor house. He can get you and your men settled in there while I repair my error and read what Lord Swordspinner has to say. And," he met Bahzell's eyes levelly, "while I have a few words with my armsmen, as well."
"Aye, I'd not say that was so very bad an idea," the hradani agreed.
"Thank you." Genuine gratefulness for the other's attitude touched Edinghas' tone, and he returned his gaze to Alfar. "Please take Prince Bahzell and his men up to the house," he said. "Tell Lady Sofalla that they'll be our guests for at least the next few days."
Alfar nodded, but Edinghas' attention had already returned to Bahzell. The hradani gazed back at him for a moment, his face almost expressionless. But then he bowed, very slightly, and Edinghas saw the understanding in his eyes. The lord warden's decision against sending even a single armsman along with Alfar, even as only a courteous "escort," on the trip to his family's private home was the strongest possible way for him to express his trust.
"It's grateful we are," Bahzell rumbled, and turned to follow Alfar towards the fortified manor house that was the closest Warm Springs had to a proper keep.
* * *
Lady Sofalla Bardiche was a sturdy, attractively plain woman whose chestnut hair was well stranded with silver. Instead of the gown a more highly ranked Sothōii noblewoman might have worn, she wore serviceable (although subtly feminine) trousers under a long, brightly embroidered tunic. The embroidery was a bit finer and more fanciful than a prosperous farmer's wife might have boasted, but it certainly wasn't the silks and satins, pearls and semiprecious gems of a great noble house. She also had a brisk, no-nonsense manner that reminded Bahzell strongly of Tala, and she took the sudden arrival of her husband's henchman with eight hradani in tow far more calmly than might have been expected.
"Well," she said after Alfar had completed his hasty explanation, "I can't say I ever expected to be entertaining hradani, Prince Bahzell. Or not, at least, on this side of the manor wall!" She smiled as she said it, and he smiled back. "But if Lord Edinghas wants you put up in guest quarters, that's good enough for me. I'm afraid you'll find things a bit less fine here at Warm Springs than at Balthar, though!"
"Milady," Bahzell replied, "we're after being hradani. A roof as doesn't leak more than a few bucketfuls each night will be doing us well enough."
"Oh, I think we can manage a little better than that," she assured him, and turned to the small gaggle of housemaids huddled behind her and gazing apprehensively at the hradani whose stature dwarfed the manor house's entry hall.
"Stop gawking like ninnies!" Sofalla scolded. "Ratha," she continued, singling out one of the older, more levelheaded-looking maids, "go and tell Gohlan that we'll be putting Prince Bahzell and his people into the south wing."
* * *
Lord Edinghas' armsmen still looked less than delighted with the situation when Alfar escorted Bahzell back to the stable an hour and a half later, but at least the most overt hostility seemed to have eased. Bahzell didn't know exactly what Sir Jahlahan had included in his letter, or how Edinghas had explained the situation to his wary retainers, but it seemed to have taken. Bahzell wasn't surprised—not after watching Lady Sofalla deal with the household staff. If her husband possessed even half her strength of personality, it would take a braver man than Bahzell to argue with him!
The reflection made Bahzell chuckle as he and Alfar crossed to where Edinghas stood in one of the stable doors.
"Again, welcome, Milord Champion," the lord warden said, and this time extended his right hand. Bahzell clasped forearms with him, and Edinghas produced a much more natural smile.
"I won't apologize again for my first greeting," he said. "I've read Lord Swordspinner's letter, now, and he told me you'd probably understand if we seemed a bit . . . put off, just at first. Doesn't make it any better—I know that—but if you're willing to forgive me for it, I'll try to see it doesn't happen again."
"There's naught to forgive," Bahzell replied with a shrug. "That's not to be saying we'd not all have been happier to've been being greeted with open arms and glad hosannas, but I'm thinking as a man should be keeping his hopes to what's possible, when all's said."
He smiled, and Edinghas smiled back. Then the lord warden's expression sobered.
"Sir Jahlahan wrote that you'd see it that way, Milord. And I'm glad. But I'd also be happier if there'd never been need for a champion of Tomanāk to come to Warm Springs. And especially not for a reason like this."
"Aye, I'll not disagree with you there," Bahzell said somberly.
"Well, I suppose we should get to it, then," Edinghas sighed. "I warn you, Milord, I've no idea how they'll react when they meet you. We've still no idea what happened to them out there, but whatever it was, it's marked them more than just physically." His jaw tightened. "I've never seen coursers frightened, Milord. Not before this. But now—"
He sighed again and turned to lead the way into the stable.
* * *
Warm Springs' stables had been built to a much larger scale than those of most manors because of the holding's long association with the Warm Springs coursers. The main stable was a high, airy structure, with huge, open-fronted stalls that were well kept and spotlessly clean. And, in spite of everything, Bahzell was unprepared for what he found inside it.
He'd asked Brandark to remain outside, with the other members of the Order. The last thing they needed was to overwhelm the injured coursers with the presence of so many hradani. He knew that, but no amount of logic could keep him from feeling alone and isolated among so many humans, none of whom knew him, and all of whom were his people's hereditary enemies.
He faced that thought, and then put it firmly behind him. He couldn't afford it now, he told himself, and turned his attention to the coursers he'd come to see.
Despite his people's name and reputation, he'd had quite a bit of experience with horses. He'd actually ridden (if not particularly well, and only for fairly brief periods) on several occasions, and the Horse Stealers' traditional enmity with the Sothōii more or less required them to be familiar with cavalry and its capabilities. No Horse Stealer was ever going to be a cavalryman himself, given his people's sheer size, so most of his personal experience had been with draft animals, but like any Horse Stealer, he had an expert eye when it came to evaluating quality horseflesh.
For all of that, he had never come within a mile of any courser until he encountered Baron Tellian and Dathgar and Hathan and Gayrhalan in the Gullet. To a large extent, that was because his father had outlawed raids on the Wind Plain less than five years after Bahzell had earned his warrior's braid. To an even larger extent, though, it had been because it was more than any hradani's life was worth to come within what any courser stallion might consider threatening range of his herd . . . which equated to coming within the stallion's line of sight. The reservations Gayrhalan continued to nourish where Bahzell was concerned even now only underscored the wisdom of remaining safely out of reach of any courser's battleaxe jaws and piledriver hooves.
Dathgar had become rather more comfortable with Bahzell, but even Tellian's companion remained . . . uneasy in close proximity to him. Still, coursers were at least as intelligent as most of the Races of Man, and both Dathgar and Gayrhalan, like Sir Kelthys' Walasfro, had been wise enough to recognize that Bahzell was not the slavering hradani stereotype for which the coursers had cherished such hatred for so long.
Nonetheless, he recognized that it behooved him to approach these coursers cautiously. None of them had ever met him; Sir Kelthys had not yet arrived, so there was no wind rider and his companion to vouch for Bahzell; and these were the brutally traumatized survivors of a merciless massacre. They were unlikely, to say the least, to take the sudden appearance of eight hradani well.
But when he stepped into the stable and saw the condition of those survivors, it was hard—even harder than he had anticipated—to remember the need for caution and distance.
The seven adults were bad enough. Even now, they shivered uncontrollably, as if with an ague, rolling their eyes and flinching away from any unexpected sound or movement. Seeing horses in such a state of terror would have sufficed to break any heart. Seeing coursers reduced to such straits was the stuff of nightmare, and not just for Sothōii like Alfar or Edinghas.
Not one of the terrified survivors had escaped unwounded, and one of the fillies had lost her right ear and eye and bore an ugly, ragged, wound that ran from the point of her left hip forward almost to her shoulder. She must have been almost four years old, and it was obvious that her technically "juvenile" status had not kept her out of the heart of her herd's battle. Her right knee was lacerated, with a deep tear extending downward along the cannon. It seemed impossible that it could have missed the extensor tendons, but although she obviously favored the leg, it was still taking her weight.
She bore at least half a dozen other, scarcely less brutal wounds, and there was something wrong about all of them. Coursers healed almost as rapidly as hradani, yet those deep, wicked trenches still oozed. Their discharge crusted her shaggy winter coat, and Bahzell could detect the scent of corruption from where he stood, even through the normal stable smells about him. The injured filly's head drooped, and her breathing was labored, yet her outward damages, grievous though they might be, were less deadly than the wounds no physical eye could see.
Bahzell felt every muscle tighten as his vision shifted. It was an aspect of his champion's status that he had yet to become fully accustomed to, and his jaw clenched as he seemed to find himself suddenly able to look inside the filly's body. He could "see" the powerful muscles, the tendons and bones, the lungs and mighty heart . . .
And the vile green pollution spreading slowly, slowly through every vein and artery in her body. Any lesser creature, he knew, would already have succumbed to the infiltrating poison, and even the filly was fading fast.
Nausea churned deep in his belly as the sheer evil of the creeping contamination washed over him. It took a wrenching physical effort to tear his eyes from her and turn that same, penetrating gaze upon the surviving foals.
Bahzell Bahnakson grunted, as if someone had just punched him in the belly. The foals had been less rent and torn than the adults who had fought to protect them, but they were also younger and smaller, with less resistance to the poison spreading from the wounds they had taken. The poison, Bahzell realized, which no horse leech, no physical healer, could possibly see or recognize.
"I'd thought you said as how there were after being eight foals," he said to Alfar, and even to his own ear, his deep voice sounded harsh.
"There were, Milord Champion," Lord Edinghas said grimly before Alfar could respond. "We lost the worst hurt of them, a colt not more than eight months old, yesterday." The lord warden shook his head, his face ashen. "We shouldn't have, Milord. A horse with those wounds, yes, but not a courser. Never a courser."
"He's right," another voice said from Bahzell's right, and the Horse Stealer turned towards the speaker. It was a young man, not yet out of his twenties, whose face and chestnut hair proclaimed his parentage. And whose eyes were hard and hostile as they met Bahzell's.
"My son, Hahnal, Prince Bahzell," Lord Edinghas said.
Unlike his father and the armsmen guarding the stable, Hahnal was neither armed nor armored. He wore a smock, instead, marked with old bloodstains—and some not so old—and his youthful face was haggard.
"Hahnal is one of our best horse leeches," Edinghas continued. "He's snatched an hour or so of sleep here and there, but he's refused to leave the stable since they returned."
"And Phrobus' own good it's done!" Hahnal half-spat. His big, capable-looking hands clenched into fists at his sides, and he turned to stare at the visibly failing coursers with eyes in which despair was finally strangling desperate determination. "We're losing them Father. We're losing all of them."
His voice cracked on the final word, and he turned away, scrubbing at his face with one palm. Bahzell could almost taste his humiliation at his display of "weakness," and, without even thinking about it, he reached out and laid his own hand on the young man's shoulder.
"Don't touch me, hradani!" Hahnal wrenched away from the contact, spinning to face Bahzell, and his eyes were fiery.
"Hahnal!" his father said sharply.
"No, Father." Hahnal never looked away from Bahzell, and his voice was icy cold. "You are Lord Warden of Warm Springs. You may grant guest right to anyone you choose. Including a hradani who claims to be a Champion of Tomanāk. That is your right and prerogative, and I will obey your word in it. But I will not be touched or petted and cosseted by a Horse Stealer, be he ten times a champion!"
"Hahnal," Edinghas said sternly, "you will apologize to—"
"Let be, Milord," Bahzell said quietly. Edinghas looked at him, and Bahzell raised one cupped palm as if pouring something from it. "I'd no business touching or offering aught without Lord Hahnal's let. And any man as has driven himself as hard as it's pikestaff plain your son has here, is after deserving the right to speak his mind. I'll not hold honesty against any man, however little it may be that I like what he's saying."
Edinghas hovered on the brink of saying something more, but Bahzell shook his head, and the lord warden clamped his teeth against any further reprimand.
"Now, Lord Hahnal," Bahzell continued, turning back to the young man and speaking in a voice which was as level and dispassionate as he could make it, "I'm thinking your father said as how the colt died yesterday?"
"Aye," Hahnal said shortly, his tone abrupt, as if he didn't know quite what to make of Bahzell's response to his own anger.
"And what was it you did with his body?"
"We buried it, of course!" Hahnal snapped. "Why, hradani? Did you want to—"
He stopped himself just in time, but the words he hadn't spoken hovered in the stable, and his father's face went white with shock, and then beet-red with fury. His hand twitched at his side, as if to slap his son, and this time even Bahzell's expression tightened.
"No," he rumbled in a voice which flowed like magma over ice, his ears flattened. "No, Milord. I've no desire to be eating such, though I'll admit, if pressed, that there are some as make me remember why my folk were after earning the name 'Horse Stealer' in the beginning. You'll do me the favor of not suggesting such again."
Hahnal started to respond hotly, but then he looked directly into Bahzell's eyes, and what he saw there was a bucket of ice water in the furnace of his rage. Bahzell said nothing more, made no slightest hostile gesture, yet Hahnal—who, however intemperate and exhausted he might be, was no coward—actually stepped back before he could stop himself.
"I—" He began, then paused and shook himself. "For that much, at least, I most truly apologize, Prince Bahzell," he said stiffly. "It was my grief and anger speaking. That cannot excuse my behavior, but it is the only explanation for it I can give you, and I am shamed by it."
"We'll say no more about it." Bahzell's voice was as chill as Vonderland ice, but then he inhaled deeply and continued in a more nearly normal tone. "The reason I was after asking about the body is that I'm thinking as how these coursers are after suffering from more than physical wounds. There's a poison working in them, one as attacks the heart and the soul as much or more than the body. And I'm not so very sure as it's after stopping when the body dies."
Hahnal and his father stared at Bahzell, Edinghas' lingering anger at his son in abatement as the sense of what Bahzell was saying registered. Hahnal started to protest, than stopped himself. It was obvious to Bahzell that he wanted to disbelieve that what he was hearing was possible, but the sick light in his eyes said that however much he'd wanted to, he'd failed.
"Toragan!" Lord Edinghas whispered, his face pale with horror. His hands tightened on his wide sword belt with enough force to squeeze the heavy leather almost double, and he stared at the injured, shivering coursers. Then he wrenched his gaze back to Bahzell.
"What can we do?" he asked, and the raw appeal in his hoarse voice submerged any lingering doubts as to who and what Bahzell was. It wasn't because his intellect had overcome them, Bahzell realized. It was because of his desperate need to believe that -someone—-anyone—could avert or undo this nightmare.
"As to that, I'm not so very sure," Bahzell admitted heavily. Edinghas stared at him, and the hradani flicked his ears in the equivalent of a shrug. "I'm thinking as how the only thing I could be trying would be to heal them," he said. "I've never yet tried to heal aught but those of the Races of Man, and I've no least notion whether or not it's even possible for me to be after healing coursers. Yet it's in my mind that I've no choice but to try."
"Heal them?" Edinghas tried to keep his incredulity out of his voice, and he almost succeeded.
"Aye. But the thing is, I'm thinking there's scant time to waste. I'd hoped as how Sir Kelthys and Walasfro would be here to be introducing me to these coursers. Yet if we're after waiting for them to reach us, we'll be losing at least some of them."
"Then you have to try now!" Hahnal burst out.
"Aye, and so I'm saying my own self," Bahzell said shortly. "Yet without Walasfro to be telling them who I am, they're not so very likely to be letting me come next or nigh them. And frightened and confused as they are, it's like enough they'll be lashing out at any threat."
Understanding filled Hahnal's expression.
"We could tether them . . ." he began, slowly and manifestly against his will.
"No." Bahzell shook his head. "They're naught but one small slip from madness as it is, and they're none too clear in their minds. And they're after being coursers, Milord. They've known neither halter nor bridle all their lives long. If you're after trying to tie them now, in their state, no matter what your reason, they'll be panicking, and then—"
"Forgive me, Prince Bahzell," Edinghas said, "but I've never seen a champion heal. Am I correct in believing that you have to actually touch the one you intend to heal?"
"Aye, that I must," Bahzell said grimly.
"Then it's out of the question." The lord warden spoke firmly, despite the despair washing across his face. "Weakened they may be, but they're coursers. They'll die on their feet rather than yield to man, demon, or god. And in their state, and with you a hradani . . ."
He shook his head heavily, but Bahzell surprised him with a sound that was halfway between a grunt and a snort. He looked back up at the towering hradani quickly, and Bahzell gave him a taut, crooked grin.
"Lord Edinghas, a champion of Tomanāk is one as does what needs doing. Himself isn't after promising we'll always like what comes of it, or even that we'll be surviving."
"It's grateful I'll be if you all be standing back," Bahzell said, and before anyone else could reply, he walked forward towards the coursers.
He kept his eyes on the wounded filly, ignoring Edinghas' half-stifled cry of protest. He had to begin somewhere, see if it was even possible for him to heal the evil consuming them, and she was the one. Her dreadful wounds made her a logical enough place to begin, but that wasn't all that drew him towards her like a filing to a lodestone. It was her, he thought. He didn't know how he knew, but she was the key, the one who could somehow tell them what they needed to know, if only she lived.
The filly's maimed head came up as he approached her. She turned, moving until she could see him with her remaining eye, and bared her teeth. One forehoof pawed at the stable floor, thudding on earth and straw bedding like a mace, and she gave a harsh, ugly sound of challenge.
Bahzell never paused. He continued to move towards her at that slow, steady pace, careful to remain on the side where she could see him. The adult coursers shifted and flowed behind her, whistling and trumpeting their own challenges as they realized one of the hated hradani had somehow penetrated the frail security of the stable's walls.
"All right, Tomanāk," he murmured very softly. "I'm hoping I've understood all this aright, and it's grateful I'll be if you can be after convincing these fine folk not to be trampling me into mud."
Then he looked at the filly, meeting the terrified challenge and hatred in her wildly rolling eye with a steady brown gaze.
"Now, then, Milady," he said gently. "I'll not blame you for distrusting such as me. But I've no least notion of doing you or yours hurt. I'm naught but a friend, whatever it may be you're thinking."
The filly whistled shrilly, the sound deafening inside the stable, and reared. Large as the stable was, there was scant room for so huge a creature to rear, but she towered above the hradani, dwarfing even his mountainous stature, forehooves pawing the air, and her raging terror and poison-corrupted madness shook the stable like a storm. The other adults caught her fury, and all seven of them started forward. Bahzell heard human voices raised behind him, crying out in warning, but he scarcely needed them to tell him he was about to be trampled under by nine or ten tons of hoofed rage.
He didn't stop. He didn't even think. He simply continued towards them, and his right hand rose. The screams of equine rage completely overwhelmed the merely human voices behind him, but then, suddenly, his raised hand flared with a blinding burst of brilliant blue light. It was like an azure sunrise trapped inside the building, illuminating every knothole, every wisp of straw—every drifting dust mote. It was as if Chemalka's lightning had crackled down from the very heavens and exploded in the palm of a hradani's hand, and a mighty wind not quite of this world seemed to sweep the length of the stable, like a hurricane that was sensed rather than felt.
And then, through the tumult and the trumpeting of the terrified coursers, Bahzell Bahnakson's voice rumbled with impossible clarity.
"Still," he said.
It was only a single word, yet it echoed in the bones and blood of every man in that stable. It went through them like an earthquake, impossible to ignore or disobey or evade. It caught them like some huge, unseen set of pincers and nailed them where they stood, unable to move, or protest, or scarcely even to breathe.
Yet that was only the echo, the backwash, of that single command's unstoppable force. The rearing filly's forehooves thudded back to earth, and she froze, staring one-eyed at the hradani and the god-light blazing from his open palm. Behind her, six more coursers stilled, as well. They stood trembling, all of their defiance and rage frozen inside an unbreakable crystal cocoon that streamed over them from Bahzell.
"Better, Milady," Bahzell murmured. "Better."
His voice was soft, gentle, almost a caress, yet that same magnificently dreadful note of command reverberated in its depths. The wounded filly's single eye stopped rolling. The anger and fear drained out of it, replaced by stillness and a sort of dreamy acceptance.
"So," Bahzell whispered. "Sooooo . . ."
He reached the filly. Despite her youth, she was bigger and more powerful than the largest draft horse Bahzell had ever seen. Even he had to reach up to touch her head, and his right hand, no longer aflame with power, was gentle on the velvety softness of her nose. She flinched ever so slightly at the touch, then stood quiescent, her eye drooping half closed, and he stroked her forehead with his other hand, his eyes dark with compassion as he saw her dreadful wounds so close at hand.
"Now, Milady," he murmured, and held out his right hand, still gently stroking with the left. He never took his eyes from the courser as he flexed his fingers, and then whispered a single word.
"Come," he breathed, and a chorus of gasps echoed through the unnatural silence of the stable as a huge, gleaming sword materialized in his hand. The crossed Sword and Mace of Tomanāk were etched into the shining steel of that superb blade, and they flashed in the stable's dimness, damasked in a faery tracery of blue and golden light.
Bahzell reversed it in his hand, holding the hilt up between him and the strangely frozen filly, and a corona of blue light grew about him. It was faint, at first. Little more than a glimmer, more guessed at than seen. But it grew in both brightness and strength. It seemed to flow outward from Bahzell, conforming to the shape of his body, yet pressing ever outward and upward. Huge as he was, that bright, brilliant blue was huger. It stretched to the rafters and spread from stall to stall, reaching out until it completely enveloped the filly, as well.
Hradani and courser stood there, face-to-face, in an impossible tableau not a single Sothōii in that stable would have believed could ever exist. The light wrapped about them grew brighter, and brighter still. Hands rose to shield their eyes, and they turned away, unable to bear the intensity of that cascading brilliance.
And in the heart of that silently roaring inferno, Bahzell Bahnakson threw all of his faith, and all of his stubborn will—his inability to admit defeat, and his unstoppable drive to do what duty required of him—against the strangling shroud of the poison consuming the filly from within. It was unlike any healing he had ever attempted, for the poison he faced was not physical. The wounds themselves, the torn flesh, the shredded hide, those were enemies he'd come to know well. But the poison was something different, something that tore at the filly's spirit and soul, devouring them, turning them into something else—something unspeakably foul and unclean.
He threw himself at it, turning his will and his own spirit—his very self—into a sword blade of light. In a way he knew he would never be able to describe he found himself locked in combat, parrying and thrusting, meeting the poison's attack on the courser and taking it upon the armor of himself and his link to Tomanāk. He thrust himself between it and its victim, prying at it, chopping at it, forcing it back, back. Slowly, steadily, with every ounce of elemental hradani stubbornness. Inch by inch, he clawed at its smothering shroud and peeled it back.
And as he did, as it slowly and spitefully yielded to his attack, he became aware of something else. He felt the filly. There was no other way to describe it. The courser was there, in the hollow of his mind's eye, like some exquisite equestrian sculpture emerging perfect and unflawed from a thick, noisome fog. It was the filly as she would have been—should have been—in all the glory of her maturity. Unscarred, unwounded, powerful and magnificent, with the wind itself in her hooves and the power of the Wind Plain's summer thunder in her heart.
He'd never seen, never imagined, such perfect balance and heart, such a splendor of matchless strength and indomitable spirit, in any living creature, and he reached out to it. He wrapped it in that silently seething hurricane of light, and as he did, something flowed through him. It was like a braided cable of lightning, reaching through him as he became a conduit for the touch of Tomanāk Himself. And yet, there was more even than godhood in that outpouring. There was also Bahzell Bahnakson, his own spirit, his own will, a giving of himself—of all that he was and knew and believed and hoped to become. It joined the tide of power, taking with it that essence of the filly, demanding that it be restored to her, making it real.
The vision snapped into perfect, impossibly intense focus in his heart and mind, and for just an instant, he, the filly, and Tomanāk were one.
It was an instant that could not last. No mortal—not even a courser, or a champion of Tomanāk—could endure that intensity more than momentarily. They fused . . . and then they flashed apart once more, severed into their separate selves, shaken and grieving for the splendor that had been, and yet joyous as they recognized the strength they had shared and the differences which made each of them unique and in his or her own way equally magnificent.
Bahzell staggered back a half-pace and stared at the filly. Not even that cascade of healing energy could undo all the damage she'd suffered. The eye she had lost, was lost. The ear she had lost would never return. But the gaping wounds, the suppurating gouges—those had vanished. Torn muscle was whole once more, rent hide was restored . . . and the poison corrupting from within had vanished.
They stared at one another, no longer joined, yet both aware that so deep a fusion could never be fully sundered, either. The filly gazed wonderingly upon the enemy who had given her back life, and more than life, and Bahzell met her gaze with a mind full of memories of thundering hooves, of muscles bunching and springing, of manes and tails streaming in the wind, and the high, wild passion of the gallop. He reached out, touching her muzzle, feeling the warmth and the rough, silken softness, and she leaned forward, pressing her nose gently, so very gently, against his chest.
"Well done, Bahzell." The voice came from everywhere and nowhere. It rumbled with the hooves of a thousand coursers thundering across the Wind Plain, and it throbbed with the rolling crash of distant thunder exploding across autumn skies, and yet it was soft, almost gentle.
"Well done, My Sword," the voice of Tomanāk repeated, and throughout the stable, men went to their knees, staring in awe at the champion and courser. "Now you know the cure," Tomanāk continued. "But the cure is not the only answer. Be ready, Bahzell, and be warned. This foe is no mere demon. This foe can slay not simply your body, but your soul. Are you prepared to face that threat to prevent what happened to Storm Daughter's herd from claiming still more victims?"
Bahzell heard the warning and tasted its truth. His god was the God of Justice and of Truth, as well as the God of War, and He did not lie. And the choice of whether or not to face that danger was his own. It was Bahzell Bahnakson's. And because it was, and because of who Bahzell Bahnakson was, it was really no choice at all.
He looked once more into the filly's—into Storm Daughter's—single eye, and let his deity's question roll through him until its echoes had settled into his bones. And then he answered it.
"Aye," he said, in a voice of quiet, hammered iron, "I am that."