Bahzell stepped up onto the mounting block and clambered into the saddle on Walsharno's back.
He still felt ridiculous.
Someone his height wasn't supposed to need a mounting block—an outsized mounting block—just to get him high enough to cram a toe into the stirrup. And a champion of Tomanāk wasn't supposed to heave himself into the saddle as if he had only the vaguest notion of how it was supposed to work. And, to top it all off, Bahzell Bahnakson wasn't accustomed to looking (and feeling) clumsy, whatever he might be doing.
<If you think this is embarrassing for you, think about what I'm going to go through in the field when you don't have your precious mounting block,> a mellow voice said in the back of his brain.> The voice was much deeper than Brandark's, but it carried an acerbic tartness that reminded Bahzell strongly, one might almost say painfully, of the Bloody Sword.
"And aren't you the fine one to be giving advice?" he muttered. "You, with all four feet on the ground! I'm after being a hradani, not a blasted sideshow acrobat!"
<Really? A hradani? Perhaps I should be rethinking this partnership.>
"You'll be finding more than enough to agree with you there, my lad," Bahzell assured him even as he settled fully into the saddle. "But while we've the topic of staying put before us, it's happier I'd be if I were after having more to hang onto up here."
<You have the saddle horn, the cantle, and—if you really feel the need for security—the fighting straps,> Walsharno said tartly. <You do not need reins, as well.>
"All very well for you to be saying!" Bahzell shot back with a grin, knowing Walsharno could taste his humor as if it were the stallion's own.
<Besides,> Walsharno continued, <it's going to be years yet before I'd trust you to steer a horse, much less risk distracting me at a critical moment.>
"Ah, well, it might be as there's a mite of sense in that," Bahzell acknowledged with a chuckle. "But seeing as how you're the one who's after doing the steering and all, would you be so very kind as to be moving off sharpish now?"
Walsharno snorted, and Bahzell felt powerful muscles twitch under him. That deliberate, preliminary twitch was the only notice he received before the courser bucked . . . playfully, he thought. At least it was sufficient warning for him to tighten his knees, grab the high cantle of his war saddle with both hands, and hang on as the stallion landed with sufficient energy to jar his teeth. The sight of two tons of "horse" arching its back and kicking up its heels was one which had to be seen to be believed, and his spine felt an inch shorter when Walsharno finished with him.
<I trust that was sufficiently "sharpish" for you?>
"Oh, aye, you might be saying that," Bahzell assured him, still clinging to the cantle like grim death, just in case.
<Good,> the stallion said silently, then moved off as sedately as a child's first pony.
The hradani heard the courser's silent laugh somewhere deep in his mind, and shared it. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to do, although he'd never imagined he might be that close to another living creature. He understood now why every wind rider called every other wind rider "brother," regardless of birth or rank, for anyone who had shared the intensity of communication with a courser had been forever set apart.
In Bahzell's case, his conversations with Tomanāk had, in an odd sort of way, provided a kind of preliminary training for the bond with Walsharno. It wasn't the same, of course, and yet there were undeniable similarities. More importantly, perhaps, Tomanāk had accustomed Bahzell to the idea that he wouldn't always be alone inside his own skull.
<And a good thing, too,> Walsharno agreed sardonically, following Bahzell's thoughts. <There's so much empty space in here you'd probably get lost without a roommate. Or possibly a little boy with a lantern to lead you about by the hand.>
"You just be keeping your comments to yourself," Bahzell told him, and Walsharno snorted another laugh.
Bahzell laughed with him, despite the grim reality behind their departure from Warm Springs. He couldn't help it as he tasted the stallion's vibrant personality and strength and felt the way they fused with his own. He knew how desperate a struggle lay before them, yet he had never felt more magnificently alive, except perhaps, in a very different way, in those rare moments when a portion of Tomanāk's power and personality flowed through him. And with that sense of shared strength and power came the knowledge, the absolute certainty, that he would never face this danger—or any danger, any loss—alone again.
"So, you're ready, Longshanks," a familiar voice observed dryly as Walsharno carried him out of the stable yard.
Bahzell looked across at Brandark, whose warhorse looked oddly shrunken, almost toylike, from the Horse Stealer's perch. Even he wasn't accustomed to looking down at a warhorse.
"Aye, so I am, if you're all still after being daft enough to be coming along," he said, his eyes sweeping over the others assembled with Brandark.
"We are," Kelthys said before Brandark could reply, speaking for himself and the fourteen wind riders who had arrived in Warm Springs over the last two days. Hurthang, Gharnal, and the other members of the Order didn't bother with even that much. They only looked at Bahzell, waiting, and beyond them were the thirteen courser stallions who had accompanied Walsharno, Kelthys, and Walasfro to Warm Springs.
"Well then," he said, and Walsharno turned without another word from him and headed away from Warm Springs along the track the Warm Springs herd had taken on its doomed journey north.
* * *
"I don't suppose," Brandark said, as his horse trotted along beside Walsharno, looking like a yearling frisking beside its sire, "that you've developed a more, ah, sophisticated campaign plan since you and I last talked?"
<Aye,> Bahzell agreed silently. <He is that. In fact, he's after reminding me of a certain courser I know.>
"As to plans," he continued aloud, "it's not as if there were all that much planning as we could be after doing." He shrugged, then raised a hand and pointed approximately north-by-northeast. "What we're hunting lies in that direction, Brandark. Aside from that, I've no more information than what I've already shared with the lot of you."
"Oh, joy," Brandark murmured, and Bahzell gave a short, harsh laugh.
"You were the one as wanted to come along, my lad," he pointed out.
"Not the only one, Milord Champion," Sir Kelthys said from Bahzell's other side, and the Horse Stealer turned to look at the Sothōii knight who had become his wind brother.
"Aye, it did seem as how there'd been a sudden shortage of brains in Warm Springs," Bahzell agreed affably. "And then," he continued, looking past Kelthys to the other fourteen wind riders and coursers, "not content, you had to be after importing more idiots fool enough for such as this."
Most of the other wind riders chuckled, but two or three of them looked less than amused, and one of them glowered as if on the brink of an angry retort. But then his expression blanked, and he looked away quickly.
Bahzell hid a mental snort. The wind riders who'd funneled into Warm Springs hadn't known what to expect when they arrived. Certainly none of them had been prepared for the bizarre notion of a hradani wind rider. All of them, and their coursers, had reacted with incredulity, and for some of them, that initial reaction had been followed by disbelief, anger, and even outright rejection.
It wasn't the first time since becoming a champion of Tomanāk that Bahzell had experienced that sort of response. And, he admitted, this time there was more excuse for it than usual. Unlike all too many he'd met in the Empire of the Axe and the human-dominated Border Kingdoms along its frontiers, the Sothōii—and coursers—had an actual history of mutual slaughter with the hradani. He could handle and allow for hatred better when there was some basis besides ignorant bigotry behind it.
And, fortunately, there was another difference this time, as well—Walsharno, his sister, and the other surviving Warm Springs coursers.
Wind riders, Bahzell had discovered, could be just as stubborn and just as determined to deny an unpalatable reality, as any other humans (or hradani). He suspected that coursers could be even more stubborn, but they did it in different ways. Perhaps the differences had something to do with their herd orientation. He didn't know about that—not yet—but he'd already discovered that when one courser told another something was true, that settled matters. As far as he could tell from his efforts to date discussing it with Walsharno, the concept of lying, or even simply exaggerating, to another courser was completely incomprehensible to them. They simply didn't do that—didn't even know how to do it. They might be mistaken about something, and they might not always agree on how to interpret an event or an idea, but they did not fabricate.
Bahzell could already foresee some potentially uncomfortable consequences of that invincible candor, but it did have its advantages. The coursers' riders might doubt his champion's status, or question his fitness as a wind rider; the coursers themselves did not. And as Luthyr Battlehorn's sudden change of expression indicated, a courser's patience with his rider was not unlimited.
Not that it seemed likely to change Battlehorn's mind any time soon. Indeed, the dark-haired, burly wind rider couldn't seem to make up his mind which concept he found more offensive—hradani wind riders, hradani champions, or an entire hradani chapter of the Order of Tomanāk. If his courser, Sir Kelthys, and at least three more of his fellow wind riders hadn't ganged up to twist his arm, he probably would have been still sitting in a corner somewhere in Lord Edinghas' manor house and sulking.
Which, Bahzell admitted, somewhat to his own chagrin, would have suited him clear down to the ground. Battlehorn had not made himself one of the Horse Stealer's favorite people.
"Well," Kelthys said, "if I imported additional idiots, it was only because I needed to find people you'd have something in common with, Milord Champion."
"That's probably after being fair enough," Bahzell acknowledged with a smile. "But even if it's not, I've still no more plan than I was after having last night."
"Should we send out scouts?" That was blond-haired, dark-eyed Shalsan Warlamp, another of the recently arrived wind riders, and one who'd done a better job than most of accepting Bahzell for who and what he was.
"Against another foe, aye," Bahzell replied. "Against this one—?" He shook his head, ears half-flattened. "I've all the 'scouts' we should be needing right here." He tapped his forehead. "And I'll not have any of our people out in front where such as we're hunting could be taking them down one at a time."
Warlamp looked skeptical, but before he could say anything else, Brandark spoke up. The Bloody Sword's normal insouciance was absent, and his voice was very serious.
"Bahzell's right, Shalsan," he said. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but I've seen this before, when he went hunting for Sharnā. If Bahzell Bahnakson tells you he knows where to find the Dark, take his word for it. He does."
"Well," Warlamp said after a moment, "I suppose that's an end to the matter, then." He rolled his shoulders, like a man feeling a chill breeze explore his spine, then shrugged. "It's just that it doesn't feel right to not have scouts out when we know the enemy's waiting up ahead somewhere."
"No more it does," Bahzell agreed. "But this isn't the sort of enemy as you're after being used to hunting, Shalsan."
* * *
"They come, Master."
The being who had once been a man named Jerghar Sholdan opened his eyes and sat up at the sound of the servile voice. He hadn't really been asleep, of course—he hadn't needed sleep in a long, long time—but it took him a moment to brush aside the memory of the dark, windy void where he had drifted amid tongues of invisible black flame on the wings of a roaring tempest. There was a Presence somewhere beyond those walls of icy fire, a Name lost in the bellow of the battering wind. He knew both of them, and worshiped them, yet the very thought of them simultaneously filled him with hatred and fear.
But that, too, had been true for a very long time, he reminded himself, the tip of his tongue teasing gently at the razor-sharp canines which were the outward indication of what he had become. And hatred and fear, like the knowledge of his own enslavement, were paltry prices to pay for immortality and the power that sustained it.
Although, he admitted to himself, very quietly, in the most deeply hidden recesses of his mind, there were times . . .
"Where?" he demanded harshly.
"Still south," the creature which had roused him said obsequiously. "Far south, but coming!"
It rubbed its misshapen paws together, bobbing its head and fawning before him, silhouetted against the sunlight outside the cave. Jerghar regarded it with contempt, yet there was more than a trace of fear under the contempt. Not of the creature, but of the similarity, the parallel, between them which all his denial could not erase.
The shardohn's long, slick tongue flicked out like a wet, black serpent to lick its piglike tusks, and it crouched still lower as it felt his eyes upon it.
"Please, Master," it whined, and he reached down and cuffed it viciously as his edge of fear spawned anger. That blow would have shattered human bone, but the shardohn only squealed—in fear, more than in pain—and fell onto its side, raising its wings to cover its head. Jerghar drew back his hand to strike it again, then let his arm fall to his side.
"Get up," he snarled, and the shardohn scrambled to its feet and stood hunched into a crouch before him, staring down and refusing to meet his eyes.
"Where 'south' are they?" he growled, and the creature seemed to fold in on itself. It whimpered, and Jerghar forced himself not to cuff it yet again. It was hard, but he reminded himself of its limitations. Night and darkness were the province of Krahana and her creatures. Jerghar himself could tolerate the light, although direct sunlight was painful and remained mildly disorienting, despite the charm Varnaythus had provided to protect him against that weakness and prevent others from noticing his oddly elongated teeth. But the shardohns were far more strongly affected than he, and even when they were shielded from the sun itself, daylight made them clumsy and slow . . . and stupid.
"Tell me the place at which they are located now," he said, speaking very slowly and distinctly, and the shardohn visibly perked up, as if the question had finally been rendered down into words it could understand.
"Perhaps one league south of where we feasted on horses, Master," it said eagerly, reaching out one taloned paw as if to touch his knee. It thought better of the familiarity and jerked its hand back, and Jerghar grunted in grudging approval.
"Very well," he said after a moment. "Rejoin your pack. I'll summon you when I require you."
"Yes, Master—yes!" the shardohn babbled, bobbing and bowing, and then scurried off, scuttling deeper into the shadows of the cave. Jerghar watched it go, then settled down on an outthrust of rock to think.
If the shardohn's report was accurate—which it probably was—then he still had at least three or four hours before Bahzell could arrive. Long enough for the sun to set.
His lip curled at that thought, yet even so, he wished he had better tools with which to work. In their own element, under the cover of darkness, shardohns were far less stupid than the one which had just reported to him might suggest. They were also fearsome opponents for any mortal creature, armed with envenomed claws and tusks, and able to shift into the forms of wolves. They could not be "killed" by most mortal means, and it was extraordinarily difficult even to destroy their physical bodies. Worst of all, from the perspective of living foes, they partook of the essence of their mistress, Krahana. They were virtual extensions of Her—separate and infinitely weaker, true, yet a portion of whatever they fed upon also fed Her. Those they pulled down they devoured, and they did not settle for feasting upon flesh, bone, and blood alone.
Yet for all that, they were paltry creatures, individually, compared to the greater demons Sharnā controlled. Indeed, Jerghar often thought that their greatest value was as food themselves. The essence which filled them was far less sweet and satisfying than the uncorrupted life force of mortals, but it could sustain one like Jerghar. And like all of Krahana's creatures, the lesser existed to be feasted upon by the greater at need . . . or even upon a whim.
He considered summoning the messenger back to him, pictured the moment his fangs sank into the creature's noisome flesh and the essence of its being flowed into him like the very elixir of life. But then he put the thought firmly aside. He would need all the shardohns he had, and he suspected he would wish he had more of them, before this night was done. Besides, the temptation reminded him that should he fail in this mission, there were those higher than he in Krahana's hierarchy and that his life would taste far sweeter to them than a mere shardohn would to him.
No, it was time to concentrate upon what his Lady demanded of him.
He closed his eyes again, longing to return to the comforting darkness of the void until the sun blazing outside the cave disappeared. Much as he might despise shardohns, he was forced to admit that his thoughts, too, were slower, less acute, during the hours of daylight than in darkness. Varnaythus had scarcely bothered to conceal his own contempt for Jerghar in Balthar, and the wizard-priest's scorn had grated on him. But Varnaythus had never encountered Jerghar in the blackness of night, when he was at the height of his powers. There were times Jerghar hungered to welcome Varnaythus into his embrace then, show him the price of contempt. It would not happen, not so long as Varnaythus was valuable to Carnadosa, for Krahana had decreed that Her sister's chosen Servants were not to be touched. Yet if the wizard-priest should fall from favor, if Carnadosa should withdraw Her protection . . .
He put that thought aside, too, with a mental curse for the way it proved how his mind wandered under the influence of the accursed sun even here, under fifty feet of solid earth and stone.
He knew what he had to do, and he knew what powerful weapons the Queen of the Damned had gifted him with. But despite that, and despite the fact that his enemies were coming to him on ground of his choosing and preparation, he felt what a mortal man would have called a shiver of fear as he contemplated his mission.
It would have been so much better if he'd dared to attack Warm Springs, to swoop down upon the manor with the shardohns and slaughter every living thing in it. But his mistress' plans had forbidden the shardohns to carry through against the manor after the initial attack on the courser herd. Warm Springs, as much as the attack on the coursers who wintered there, had been the bait in the trap which would close upon Baron Tellian. In the end, Lord Edinghas' entire holding would be taken and devoured slowly, lovingly. But not until after Tellian had been drawn in so that he might be included in the feast.
Only . . . Tellian hadn't come. He'd been sucked away to Kalatha, instead, lured away from Krahana and into the Spider's web. Jerghar wasn't supposed to know the details of what Dahlaha and her mistress intended to happen, but he knew many things he wasn't supposed to. If Varnaythus was too confident of Jerghar's stupidity to realize his attempts to prevent that had failed miserably before one who commanded his Lady's resources, so much the worse for him.
Yet the substitution of Bahzell Bahnakson for Baron Tellian threatened to disorder even Her plans, and it was Jerghar's responsibility to make certain it did not. He'd been gravely tempted to proceed with the attack on Warm Springs which had always been part of the original plan, but the speed with which Bahzell and his companions had reached Lord Edinghas from Balthar had taken him by surprise. Bahzell had already arrived and healed the coursers of the shardohns' lingering venom—something Jerghar hadn't believed would be possible, even for a champion of Tomanāk—almost a full day before Jerghar had anticipated his arrival. By the time Jerghar himself had assumed direct command of the shardohns and the additional Servants awaiting him and gotten his forces properly organized, Bahzell had done far more than simply heal the coursers. He'd also been given one full priceless day of sunlight in which to recover from that ordeal, and he'd used his respite well.
Jerghar had required only the gentlest probe by one of his fellow Servants to know that the accursed hradani had erected a defensive perimeter impossible to cross. In fact, the sheer strength of the barrier Bahzell had managed to throw up was more than merely frightening. The Horse Stealer had been a champion for less than one year, yet the seamless, impenetrable power of that -barrier—blazing incandescently with the terrifying blue light of Tomanāk for those with the eyes to see it—-surpassed anything Jerghar had ever encountered. Thank the Lady he couldn't bring that fixed, focused rampart with him! It must have cost him hours of concentration to erect it in the first place, and he had to have anchored it in the very soil of the Warm Springs home manor.
But it appeared that the hradani was confident enough to come out from behind its protection at last. Which was either a very good thing . . . or the very worst thing that could possibly have happened. And if the shardohn's report was correct, Jerghar should discover which it was this very night.