This time, the deep, rolling voice echoing through Bahzell's mind wasn't a courser's. It was the voice of Tomanāk Orfro, God of War and Chief Captain of the Gods of Light.
Bahzell didn't even blink, but his mobile ears twitched, moving in perfect parallel with Walsharno's to point forward. The hradani felt the courser's reaction like an echo of his own, yet Walsharno took the cascading, musical thunder of that voice far more calmly than Bahzell had taken his own first conversation with Tomanāk. There was a flavor of intense respect to his emotions, a touch of wonder and delight, but not one of awe.
<And isn't that after being a silly question?> Bahzell thought back at his deity. <And here was I, thinking as how we were all after riding out for a picnic lunch!>
Walsharno didn't share the apprehension bordering on horror which Bahzell's tart exchanges with his god tended to evoke in two-legged audiences. He continued to trot briskly forward, swishing his tail to discourage a particularly irritating fly, and looked on with amused interest, perched like another viewpoint in Bahzell's mind.
<Bahzell,> the deep, resonant voice observed with a sort of pained amusement of its own, <I realize you're not exactly the most conventional Sword I've ever had, but you might want to work on your social skills for the moments when we have these little conversations.>
<So I might, but I'm thinking that if ever I did, you might be after getting all confused and wondering if you'd the right fellow on the other end.>
<Oh, I doubt that, Brother,> Walsharno's thought put in. <I doubt very much that He could possibly have two champions as irritating as you are.>
<Just like you to be after making up to himself just because he's a god, and all,> Bahzell retorted, and the earthquake rumble of Tomanāk's chuckle rolled through him. Then the god continued, but his voice was softer, somehow.
<I see that you two are as well suited to one another as any of us of the Light could have hoped, my children. That's good. You have far to go together. Be glad in one another and treasure what lies between you.>
<Aye, that we will,> Bahzell replied, his own "voice" gentler than it had been a moment before. He felt Walsharno's unspoken agreement behind his own, then gave himself a mental shake. <Still and all,> he pointed out in something much more like his normal style, <that sounds as if it's after suggesting we've a way to go yet after this little unpleasantness as is waiting up ahead of us somewhere.>
<I wish I could promise you that, Bahzell,> Tomanāk said seriously. <Unfortunately, I can't. Not even a god can tell you what will be. All we can say is what may be.>
<Indeed?> Walsharno's ears shifted. <Forgive me, Tomanāk, but I had always assumed a god could see the future as readily as the past.>
<The problem, Walsharno,> Tomanāk said, <is that in reality, there is no future or past. All time, all events, coexist. Mortals live in what you might think of as a moving window that briefly illuminates what they conceive of as separate moments in that single reality. It is a factor of their mortality that they cannot see it whole and entire, and so they order what they do see and experience into a past, a present, and a future.>
Bahzell frowned, intrigued almost despite himself. A portion of his awareness remained firmly focused on the movement of Walsharno's muscles under him, the caress of the late afternoon breeze as the day wound towards twilight, the jingle of mail and weapons harnesses, the creak of saddle leather, and the slightly dusty smell of grass crushed under the hooves of coursers and warhorses alike. But most of his attention was focused on the question it had never occurred to him to ask and on the answer he would never have anticipated, if he had asked.
<I'm not so very sure as I understand any of that,> he put in, <but I'm mortal positive I'm not understanding all of it.>
<Nor do I,> Walsharno agreed. <Are You saying gods can see all of time in a single sweep? Because, if that's the case—if You see what we call the past and the future simultaneously—then why do You also say You can only tell us what may be, and not what will?>
There was no disrespect or challenge in the courser's question. He accepted what Tomanāk had said, as a yearling accepted the decrees and explanations of his herd stallion. He was simply seeking explanation, not demanding that Tomanāk justify what he had already said.
<Mortals think in terms of causes and effects,> Tomanāk replied. <And insofar as mortal affairs are concerned, that's a useful and effective way to visualize what they experience. But the truth is that a given cause does not have one fixed, inevitable result, as mortals persist in thinking that it does. All possible outcomes of an act, or an event, are equally real and valid, Walsharno. Mortals observe and experience only one as their moving window travels across the moment of resolution, but all are present and real . . . both "before" and "after" that perception and experience mortals define as "now.">
<My brain is after hurting,> Bahzell observed dryly, and Tomanāk chuckled again in the back of the link he and Walsharno shared. <If I'm understanding you aright, then are you after saying that whatever it may be we're thinking happened didn't? That we're only after imagining it did because we've not the eyes—or the minds—to be seeing what truly did?>
<No,> Tomanāk replied. <The problem is that mortals lack the proper frame of reference to visualize all that's bound up in what you think of as "now," or "the present." In a way, that's the very thing that makes you so valuable in the struggle between the Light and the Dark, Bahzell. In a fashion I can't explain to you because of the difference in our frames of reference, mortals define events and will ultimately define whether the Light or the Dark triumphs in this universe by the framework they impose upon the reality they cannot fully observe.>
He obviously recognized Bahzell's and Walsharno's confusion, for he went on.
<Think of it this way. "History" is a mortal creation, a procession of mortal experiences which moves through the interconnected past and future. It . . . selects which single outcome "occurs" out of the collision of all possible causes and all possible effects for each given event. The word "until" is another mortal creation, a consequence of the way in which you perceive time and events, but "until" that moment of mortal experience of an event, all of its possible outcomes happen. Indeed, if you wish to think of it this way, the perception of each individual mortal creates its own individual universe for every outcome of every event.>
<But in that case,> Walsharno thought slowly, <there must be as many universes as there are possible outcomes.>
<Precisely,> Tomanāk replied simply, as if the staggeringly complex and preposterous implication were perfectly reasonable. <As I told you once before, Bahzell, the Light and the Dark are engaged in a struggle across more universes than you can possibly imagine. You simply didn't realize that it is you mortals who create those universes. And, in the "end," it will be the balance of all those universes, the preponderance of them, in which Light and Dark have triumphed which determines the fate of them all.>
<Now I know my head is after hurting,> Bahzell thought after a moment. <But if I've puzzled out even the least tiniest bit of what it is you're after saying, then you can't be telling us what will be after happening because we've not yet reached that moment with our "window"?>
<Exactly,> Tomanāk agreed, <and yet not complete. Mortals believe we gods see all of time and space and that, if we chose, we could tell them what will happen. But they're only partly correct. We do see all of time and space, and because we see all possible outcomes, we cannot tell you which one of them you will experience. We could tell you which outcomes are more likely, or less, but we cannot tell you which one will be for you, because all of them will happen somewhere.
<Yet that's only fair, my children, because only you can tell us what the ultimate fate of all of us will be. Because in the moment that we reach the final end of all mortal perceptions of all mortal events and the decision is rendered in favor of the Light or the Dark, then all other possible outcomes will disappear, as if they never were. Ultimately, your fate lies in your own hands, not ours. What you choose, the struggles you wage, the battles you win and lose—those are what determines the fates of the gods themselves. And that, Bahzell, to answer the question you asked me once, is why you and all other mortals, and why each and every one of all those infinite universes, are "so all-fired important" to us gods.>
Bahzell and Walsharno were silent, stunned by the immensity of the concept Tomanāk had just laid before them. The idea that there were an infinite number of Bahzells paired with an infinite number of Walsharnos, each fusion experiencing its own outcomes, fighting its own battles and meeting its own fate, might have made them feel small, and insignificant. No more than two single grains of sand upon an endless beach. Yet they were anything but small and insignificant. The exercise of their free will would determine their fates, and their fates would be not grains of sand on a beach, but stones in an avalanche thundering to a grand conclusion which would determine the fate of all universes and of every creature who had ever lived . . . or ever would.
<That's . . . after being quite a mouthful for a man to be digesting,> Bahzell said after a long, thoughtful pause.
<It is,> Tomanāk agreed. <And it isn't a mouthful most mortals are prepared to bite off and chew. Not everyone has the capacity to understand and accept the implications, and many of those who do refuse to accept them. The fact that you can both understand and accept, and find in that understanding strength for the battle, rather than hopelessness in the face of such immensity, is one of the things which make you a champion, Bahzell. And you, as well, Walsharno.>
<I?> Walsharno came to a sudden halt, his ears straight up and his eyes wide. <I, a champion? I'm no such thing!>
<Oh, but you are,> Tomanāk said almost gently. <Not by yourself, perhaps, but a champion nonetheless. The first courser champion, as Bahzell is the first hradani champion in over twelve centuries.>
<But—> Bahzell began.
<Don't worry, Bahzell,> Tomanāk said gently, <no one will constrain Walsharno to be or do anything against his will, any more than I could compel you to become my champion except by your own free choice and decision. Yet coursers are not like the Races of Man. When humans or hradani make choices, they make them as individuals. Each and every one of you is alone in that moment of decision. But coursers are part of a herd, part of an interconnected whole where thought calls to thought, and mind speaks to mind. Walsharno, like all coursers who choose brothers from among the Races of Man, is different in that he reaches beyond the herd. His sense of who and what he is transcends that rich, flowing river of joined thought and experience. In a way, it makes him greater than the whole, and yet less, for until the moment that his soul met yours there was something missing within him. Something the herd could not provide and whose absence he had not recognized until he met you. But it was that sense of the herd, that awareness of himself as one who was unique, yet a part of more than one, which let him know you when he met you and to join with you willingly. And in that joining, which made you both the two separate individuals you had always been and also the single entity you become when your bond joins and focuses you, he partook of your champion's status.>
<Here now!> Bahzell protested, oblivious to the other coursers and warhorses halted in puzzlement about him and Walsharno. <Here now—I'll not have it! I'll not be dragging Walsharno like some lamb to the slaughter into whatever might be after waiting for me!>
The complex linkage between hradani, courser, and deity trembled with the force of his protest.
<Peace, Brother,> Walsharno said, shaking off his own shock at Tomanāk's calm announcement as he recognized the pain—and guilt—suffusing Bahzell's mental cry of denial. <You will never drag me anywhere against my will. When I chose you, I chose knowing you were a champion, knowing where that might lead. I was surprised, but He's right, and if you think upon it, you'll see that He is. I willingly and gladly chose to partake of whatever fate awaits you—whatever fate we make for ourselves—in the full knowledge that you were a champion . . . and that few champions perish in peace, surrounded by those who love them. It simply never occurred to me that in doing so I might have stepped so close to the power of the Light myself.>
<But you have, Walsharno,> Tomanāk said gently. <And it is so like you—and Bahzell—to have made a decision that profound so quickly, so fearlessly. Great heart knows great heart when they meet, as you have met. And yet, Bahzell has the right to fear for you, to seek to protect you—to be certain he has not "dragged" you to a fate you did not willingly accept. And so I ask you, will you take sword oath to me as the first courser champion?>
<I will,> the courser's voice rang in the vaults of Bahzell's mind. A part of the hradani wanted -desperately to forbid it, to prevent Walsharno from binding himself so inescapably to whatever fate awaited Bahzell himself. But another part recognized that it was too late to prevent that. That from the moment Walsharno willingly linked himself to him, their fates had been joined. And another part of him recognized that he had no right to forbid Walsharno this. That it was the courser's—his brother's—right to make the choice for himself.
<Do you, Battle Dawn, son of Summer Thunder and Pride of Morning, swear fealty to me?>
<I do.> Walsharno's "voice" was as deep, as measured, as that of Tomanāk himself, filled with all the certainty and power of his mighty heart.
<Will you honor and keep my Code? Will you bear true service to the Powers of Light, heeding the commands of your own heart and mind and striving always against the Dark as they require, even unto death?>
<Do you swear by my Sword and your own skill in battle to render compassion to those in need, justice to those you may be set to command, loyalty to those you choose to serve, and punishment to those who knowingly serve the Dark?>
<Then I accept your oath, Walsharno, son ofMathygan and Yorthandro. May you bear yourself and your brother always in the service of the Light.>
A deep, resonant bell rang somewhere deep in the depths of Bahzell Bahnakson's soul. A single musical note enveloped him, wrapped itself about him and Walsharno, and as it sang like the voice of the universe itself, Walsharno's presence blazed beside him like the very Sun of Battle for which he was named. The power and essence of Tomanāk himself was infused into that glorious heart of flame, and Bahzell felt all of the myriad connections between the three of them. It was unlike anything he had ever felt before, even in that moment when he and Kaeritha had felt and experienced with Vaijon the moment that Tomanāk accepted his sword oath.
<Done—and well done!> The deep voice sang through the depths of their joined souls, deep and triumphant, joyously welcoming and shrouded in the thunder of coming battle. <Tremble, O, Darkness! Tremble before the coming of these, my Swords!>