Sir Kelthys Lancebearer eased himself in the saddle as Walasfro's steady, inexorable gallop brought them over the final rise and they paused, with the home manor of Warm Springs spread out before them at last. The sun was barely above the eastern horizon, shining down across the towering height of Hope's Bane Glacier far to the north, while morning mist hovered like blue fog across the fields and pastures and the white steam of the springs which gave the manor its name rose in motionless, argent plumes.
Walasfro stood for a moment with his head high, breathing deeply. Not even a courser could maintain the pace he'd set without eventually wearing himself out, and Kelthys could feel the stallion's weariness . . . and his own. Indeed, although Walasfro had been doing all the galloping, Kelthys suspected that hefelt more fatigued than the courser did. Unlike Walasfro, no one had done any sorcerous improvement of his ancestors; he was merely a mortal human being, like any other. Being chosen as a wind rider didn't change that, and he ached as if his entire body had been beaten with cudgels after their long, exhausting ride. They'd traveled over fifty leagues since receiving the horrifying message from Bahzell and Sir Jahlahan, not including a sixty-mile detour to take the same message to the manor of Bear River. Kelthys had begrudged the extra time, but he could never have justified not spending it, for he'd known that the Bear River courser herd had left its winter pastures and stables earlier that week. Only another courser—like Walasfro—could have located the Bear River herd stallion in the immensity of the Wind Plain and taken him warning.
And, he admitted, looking over his shoulder at the fourteen riderless stallions who had paused behind him and Walasfro, nostrils flaring as they blew and tossed their heads, the reinforcements were welcome. Or, he hoped so, at any rate.
Almost half the Bear River adult stallions—including all of the herd's bachelors—had chosen to accompany them to Warm Springs. He'd expected that they would, and under normal circumstances, such a powerful reinforcement would have been priceless. But although the details in Bahzell's and Jahlahan's message had been sketchy, it was obvious that the Warm Springs herd had been unable to resist whatever had attacked it. Which meant he and Walasfro might have brought the other coursers along only to expose them to a danger they could not match. It was virtually impossible for Kelthys to imagine such a threat, but what had already happened seemed grimly sufficient proof that it could exist.
Yet despite that, he'd known he would never be able to justify not giving them the choice of facing it. That was part of what it meant to be a wind rider. No courser had ever answered to the demand of whip or spur, and there were no reins connected to the ornamental hackamore Walasfro wore. Coursers decided where they would go, and when, as they chose, and those privileged to share their lives had no choice but to accept that they had the same right as any human to choose what dangers they would face, what sacrifices they would make, as well.
Kelthys had been a wind rider for over twenty years, and there were times—like today—when he still found it difficult to believe he had ever won Walasfro's -brotherhood and love. It was not given to everyone, he knew, to experience the fierce exaltation of galloping across open plains on the back of a Sothōii warhorse. To feel the mighty muscles bunching and exploding with energy, the wind whipping into one's face, the stretch and grace of four hooves at the moment all of them were off the ground at once. To feel one's own muscles merging with the movement, weaving into that wild, exhilarating dance. To know that one was hurtling across the face of Toragan's own realm at speeds as high as thirty miles an hour, or even more.
It was those magical moments when man and horse melded, when they fused into one racing being, which truly created the character of the Sothōii. It accounted for their sense of self-sufficiency, their trust in their own capability—their arrogance, if one wanted to put it that way. For the truth was that the Sothōii knew, beyond any possibility of contradiction, that there were no finer, more deadly cavalry than they in the entire world. And in those moments when their mounts' hooves spurned the earth itself, they experienced a freedom and an exaltation that was almost like a taste of godhood.
Yet even those blessed to know the capabilities of the Wind Plain's superb warhorses could only imagine, and that but dimly, the glory of saddling the wind itself. Of feeling a ton and a half or more of muscle, bone, and wild, unquenchable spirit thundering beneath one. Of knowing that not even a warhorse could outsprint the magnificent, four-legged being who had chosen one as his brother. Or of experiencing that same, wild exhilaration not for the fleeting minutes of a warhorse's endurance, but literally for hours at a time. Of being able to actually touch the thoughts of another living, breathing being, and to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he would die at your side, defending you as you would defend him.
No creature born solely of nature could have matched that incredible performance, but the coursers could, and as many as one in ten of them might bond with a human rider. And those wind riders were the elite of the Sothōii cavalry—paired mounts and riders who truly fused into single beings, faster, smarter, more powerful and infinitely more deadly than any mere horseman could ever hope to be.
That was the reason the coursers and the Sothōii existed in an almost symbiotic relationship. Only a very small percentage of Sothōii would ever sit astride a courser, but all Sothōii felt the awe which the coursers' sheer majesty and beauty evoked in any who saw it. And in a way which no other people in Norfressa would ever truly understand, the coursers were as much citizens of the Kingdom of the Sothōii as any human. They lived on the same land. They defended that land against the same enemies. They died with their chosen riders to preserve it. In return for the human hands they required to do what they could not, they offered their incomparable speed and strength and endurance in the service of their common homeland.
That was why what had happened to the Warm Springs coursers filled any Sothōii's blood with icy fear . . . and his heart with fiery rage. No one—no one, mortal, demon, or devil—could commit such an atrocity and escape retribution. And if Kelthys felt that way, then how much more did the Bear River coursers feel the same fury . . . and fear? That was why he'd had to tell them. And it was also why, as he looked back over his shoulder at those huge, beautiful creatures behind him and Walasfro, for one of the very few times in his life, Sir Kelthys Lancebearer's apprehension and outright fear fully matched his joy in his courser brother's speeding majesty.
* * *
<Do you think we're in time?>
The question in Kelthys' mind was fretful, filled with as much guilt, despite the speed with which they had outraced the wind itself, as with anxiety. Only coursers who had bonded—and then only with their own riders—had the ability to form thoughts into actual words, but their mental "voices" were as expressive as any human speech could hope to be.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Kelthys replied, as Walasfro sprang back into motion—not a gallop, this time, but a distance-devouring canter that was faster than many a horse's full gallop—with the Bear River stallions on his heels. "But if we're not, it's not your fault, my heart."
He knew not even a courser could have physically heard him over the sound of hooves and wind, but he almost always spoke aloud to Walasfro.
<They should not have gone without a wind brother. What was their herd stallion thinking?>
Kelthys recognized a rhetorical question, and the gnawing acid of fear which spawned it, when he heard one, and he made no answer.
<Tellian or Hathan should have come. They're wind chosen, and Dathgar and Gayrhalan could have brought them here already.And they would have known what to do when they got here,> the stallion continued, worrying his fears like a dog with a bone, and Kelthys tasted the lingering wariness, hovering on the brink of distrust, in that querulous insistence. The courser had seen as much evidence of Bahzell's champion's status as Kelthys, but he found it even harder than his rider to overcome the fact of Bahzell's hradaniness.
"They weren't there," and Kelthys said firmly. "Walasfro, you know that as well as I do. Just as you know how lucky we are that a champion of Tomanākwas there."
<A hradani champion,> Walasfro shot back.
"A champion," Kelthys said even more firmly. "If Tomanāk Himself accepts Prince Bahzell as His own, don't you think we ought to be able to do the same?"
<I suppose so,> Walasfro muttered in the back of Kelthys' brain, and the wind rider sighed.
In the Sothōii tongue, which was much more directly descended from the ancient Kontovaran than most languages in Norfressa, Walasfro's name meant "Son of Battle." It had been given to him by his herd stallion when he was barely a two-year old, and like most of the names herd stallions assigned, it carried a keen insight into the bearer's personality . . . and not just on the field of war. Not even a god's testimonial to a hradani's character was enough to change his mind. Not entirely.
"I'm sure he'll do all that any champion of Tomanāk could do, once he arrives," Kelthys said now, and watched Warm Springs' outbuildings growing steadily larger as Walasfro thundered towards them.
* * *
Lord Edinghas' masonry manor house stood on an artificial mound of earth, surrounded by an outlying earthen wall and rampart which also enclosed all the manor's other critical structures. It had not been designed to resist armies or sieges, but it was more than adequate to stand off raiders, or even sizable detachments, if the attackers lacked proper siege equipment. As Sir Kelthys, Walasfro, and the Bear River stallions pounded through the open gates, they saw far more sentries than usual atop the deep, thick berm. No one challenged them, of course. One of the consequences of being a wind rider or a courser was that one was both highly visible and instantly identifiable.
The senior officer of the watch didn't even speak to Kelthys; he only waved his helmet from atop the rampart in greeting, then pointed at the main stables. Kelthys raised a hand in reply, and he and Walasfro—trotting now, no longer cantering—led the Bear River stallions in the indicated direction.
Their shared anxiety had grown sharper than ever as they neared the end of their journey, and although Kelthys couldn't directly speak to or hear any of the other coursers, he felt the echo of their own tension and uneasiness through Walasfro. The sound of the other stallions' hooves grew louder as they entered the built-up area of the manor, and Kelthys' mouth twitched in a humorless smile as he realized those hooves were falling in a synchronized cadence. The Bear River stallions were closing ranks, forming up as if for battle. But then the stable was close before them, and they slowed even further, dread at what they might find honing their anxiety even sharper.
They moved forward at little more than a walk, past the ring of armsmen surrounding the stable. And then, with a suddenness so abrupt it made even a courser look clumsy and rocked a wind rider in the saddle, Walasfro stopped. The courser's head snapped up, his ears went straight up like exclamation points, and the sheer strength of his surprise hit Kelthys like a fist through their shared awareness.
Seven foals and a filly stood with four mares in the stable paddock. The youngsters huddled close around the mares, wariness and the echoes of remembered terror drawing them into tight proximity. There were scars on all twelve of them, some savage, and yet, as Kelthys looked at them, he could almost feel their healthiness. And then he realized he was feeling it, feeling it through Walasfro. He'd always known his courser brother had a powerful personality, but until that moment he'd never fully realized how powerful it actually was. Walasfro might well have become a herd stallion himself, had he not chosen to bond with Kelthys, and it was that herd sense that reached out and touched those scarred survivors.
One of the mares raised her head, whickering in response, and Walasfro shook himself, very much as a human might have done, as he tried to recover from his stunned astonishment. It looked much more impressive when a courser did it, but the outward manifestation was as nothing compared to the inward reality Kelthys shared with him.
He heard equally startled equine sounds from behind him as the Bear River stallions realized, albeit more slowly, what Walasfro had already sensed. Bahzell's and Jahlahan's message had warned them that according to the messenger from Lord Edinghas, all of the Warm Springs survivors hovered close to death, but there was no trace of the deathly illness Alfar Axeblade had reported in any of these coursers. Scars to mark its passing, perhaps, but no more. Even the shadow of the terror they had endured had been somehow lessened. Not set aside, or erased, but . . . transformed. Transmuted into memory which might frighten but could no longer paralyze or crush the indomitable spirit which was any courser's birthright.
The single word came to Kelthys from Walasfro. It was as if the stallion were incapable of forming a more complex thought, and yet that one word carried every nuance of his complicated bewilderment, joy, confusion, gratitude, and rejoicing.
"I don't know." Kelthys knew his own voice sounded almost as stunned as Walasfro's thought had felt. "I—"
He broke off, turning his head and following the direction of Walasfro's gaze as he felt the stallion's fresh surprise. Two more coursers, one of them huge for a mare, and more brutally scarred than any they had yet seen, paced slowly out of the stable. The bigger of the two—and the younger, Kelthys realized as Walasfro's herd sense touched them—had lost an eye and an ear, and her winter-thick chestnut coat bore the bold white lines of what must be wicked scars. She was obviously still adjusting to her half-blindness, but she carried her maimed head with the same regal pride which infused her high-stepping walk.
Walasfro's herd sense identified the older courser beside her as the senior surviving mare of the Warm Springs herd. Not that she was very old. Coursers, unlike horses, routinely lived for as long as sixty years, although they matured at only a slightly slower rate. But this mare—the oldest surviving member of the entire Warm Springs herd—could not have been more than nineteen years old.
That single fact drove home how utterly devastated the herd had been, but that registered only peripherally on Kelthys' awareness. Something else seized upon his attention, and he felt the disbelieving astonishment of Walasfro and the Bear River stallions as they, too, saw the stumbling, utterly exhausted hradani between the two coursers. Saw him scarcely able even to stand, yet forcing himself erect as he came to greet them. And saw his arm across the back of that half-blind, horribly scarred filly as she walked protectively beside him and lent him her strength.
"It's glad I am to be seeing you, Sir Kelthys," Bahzell Bahnakson greeted him in a frail husk of his deep, powerful voice.
* * *
<I can't believe he didn't wait for us.>
"I'm still trying to accept that he and the others managed to beat us here in the first place!" Kelthys replied, as he moved the dandy brush briskly against the direction of the hair with a strong circular motion.
He stood in Lord Edinghas' stable, carefully grooming Walasfro. All around them, other stable hands performed the same service for the Bear River stallions, and drifting hair from shedding winter coats seemed to be everywhere. In many ways, it was a reassuringly domestic scene, but Walasfro's residual disbelief echoed from all the coursers, hanging in the air like another, invisible cloud of hair.
There had been no time yet for details, and the filly—Gayrfressa—had insisted on sending the exhausted champion off to rest. One of the Bear River stallions, a massive red roan with black mane and tail, had attempted to delay her. Kelthys hadn't been able to hear any of their conversation, but he'd seen Gayrfressa shake her head impatiently, then actually bare her teeth, and the older, bigger stallion had backed off. He and all of his companions had fallen back, flowing apart to open an avenue through their midst for Gayrfressa and Bahzell, and as the hradani half-walked and half-staggered past them, leaning heavily on the filly, they had tossed their heads high, then lowered them in perfect unison. Kelthys' jaw had done its best to drop as he recognized the salute coursers normally reserved only for their own herd stallions.
He very much doubted that Bahzell had had any suspicion of the honor those stallions had bestowed upon him. Even if he'd been a wind rider himself, he was so totally exhausted that very little of what happened about him could have registered. But the sight of coursers bowing—offering their homage, really—to a hradani had been so profoundly unnatural that, even now, Kelthys had difficulty believing he'd actually seen it.
But he was obviously the only human in the entire holding of Warm Springs who did, he told himself.
<The speed they made on their journey surprises me, too,> Walasfro admitted. <Yet even that is less surprising than that he chose not to wait until we could arrive so that I might speak to the others for him before he approached them.>
"There was no time for him to wait," Kelthys said. And, as if to underscore his own earlier thought, another human voice spoke quietly.
"No, there wasn't," it said, and Kelthys turned to look at the speaker.
Hahnal Bardiche stood beside him, personally currying the huge roan who had attempted to accost Gayrfressa. The wind rider arched an eyebrow, and Hahnal shrugged.
"I'm not a wind rider, Sir Kelthys, but I've spent all my life around coursers. I can usually tell when a wind rider is talking to himself and when he's talking to his courser. And, under the circumstances, there's really only one thing you and Walasfro are very likely to be discussing at the moment, isn't there?"
"I can't fault your reasoning, Lord Hahnal." Kelthys grinned wryly. "And to be fair to Walasfro, I'm almost as surprised as he is." He shook his head. "First and foremost by the simple fact that they got here so quickly. The gods know the speed of hradani infantry has surprised us often enough to our cost in the past, but not even that prepared me for this. They must literally have run the entire way!"
"They did," Hahnal agreed quietly. "Well, the Bloody Swords rode, but every one of the Horse Stealers ran."
"I know," Kelthys said, and shook his head again. "I'm just having trouble believing it. But over and above that, I've come to know Prince Bahzell well enough to know he must have realized exactly how dangerous it was for a hradani to get that close to wounded coursers. Especially without someone like Walasfro to talk to them for him."
"It was more dangerous than even you can possibly realize, Sir Kelthys." Hahnal's young voice was dark, and he looked away for a moment. "To my eternal shame, I doubted that Prince Bahzell truly was a champion of Tomanāk. Worse, I was prepared to hate him even if he were a champion. But he never hesitated. He knew we were losing them, that none of them would have survived if he'd waited for your arrival . . . and that every one of them was half-mad with terror and pain and the poison working on them. They didn't see a champion of Tomanāk, either, Milord. They saw a Horse Stealer hradani, and I still don't understand how he kept them from trampling him into the mud. But he did."
"He healed Gayrfressa first. And not just her wounds, Milord." He shook his head slowly. "He healed her soul, called her back from the Dark and gave her back herself. I'm no wind rider, but I have a touch—too little to train, but a touch—of the healing mage talent, and I felt what he did. It was nothing at all like what a mage healer would have done. It was . . . it was—I don't know the words to describe what it was, Sir Kelthys, but he offered himself to whatever was consuming her. He took all of it upon himself in her stead, and then he—and Tomanāk—peeled it away from her and destroyed it."
Lord Edinghas' son shook his head again.
"It took everything he had to channel enough of the God's power to do it, Milord. Any fool—even one like me—could see that. Just as we could all see that he stayed on his feet on nothing but sheer guts and stubbornness after he'd healed her. And then, somehow, he did it all over again. And again, and again—thirteen times, Milord. Without stopping to rest. Until he'd healed every . . . single . . . one . . . of . . . them.
"I think it almost killed him," Hahnal said very softly, staring at his hands as they moved across the roan stallion's coat. "I think it could have killed him . . . and that he knew it. And he's a hradani. Not a Sothōii, but a hradani."
"I know," Kelthys responded after a moment. "And it probably says something we'd rather not hear about us that we're so surprised by his actions. Whatever else he may be, Lord Hahnal, he's also a champion of Tomanāk. Somehow I doubt that Tomanāk is in the habit of taking champions, whatever their race, who are anything except extraordinary people."
He was speaking to Walasfro, and the Bear River stallion Hahnal was tending to, as much as to the heir of Warm Springs. And Walasfro's presence in the back of his mind told him that the courser understood that perfectly.
"Aye, Milord," Hahnal nodded soberly, "and that's exactly what he and those other hradani from the Order are—people. Alfar was right about them when he told my father how hard they'd driven themselves to get here. And I don't think any of us will ever forget seeing Prince Bahzell heal the coursers."
"No, I don't suppose you will," Kelthys agreed, and looked up as Walasfro turned his head to meet his gaze. "And neither will the coursers, I suspect," the wind rider said.