"It's about time you were getting your lazy arse back up here."
"And it's a pleasure to be seeing you, too, Hurthang," Bahzell said mildly. He wiggled his ears gently at his cousin—one of the very few warriors, even among the Horse Stealers, who was almost as massive and powerfully built as Bahzell himself—and grinned impudently.
"All very well for you to be playing the japester . . . as usual," Hurthang growled as he threw his arms around Bahzell in a kinsman's embrace and thumped him on both shoulders. "But this time round, I'm thinking the midden's getting just a bit riper than any of us might be wishing. If you'd not turned up today or tomorrow, I'd've been shoveling the sh—ah, dealing with it myself."
His voice and manner were both serious, despite his obvious pleasure at seeing his cousin again. He gave Bahzell's shoulders another slap, then stood back and nodded a welcome to Brandark.
"He wanted to start shoveling it yesterday," a soprano voice observed tartly. "So thank Tomanāk you did get back! He's not any more, um, sophisticated than you are, Bahzell, and he's even harder to keep on a leash."
Bahzell turned towards the speaker, a young woman, a human in her very early thirties, with hair so black it was almost blue, sapphire-dark eyes, and a pronounced Axeman accent. She wore matched short swords, one on either hip, her slender hands were strong and callused from their hilts, and her quarterstaff leaned against the pew beside her. Even without the old scars which marked her face (without making it one bit less attractive) it would have been obvious she was a warrior, and one to be reckoned with. She was also tall for a woman, especially one from the Empire of the Axe . . . which meant that the top of her head came almost as high as Bahzell's chest.
"Not that he's necessarily wrong just because he's a simple, direct barbarian," she continued. "As a matter of fact, I'm a bit worried, too. But I hope you'll be just a little more careful about local sensibilities this time around." Bahzell looked at her with profound innocence, and she shook her head sternly. "Don't show me those puppy-dog eyes, Milord Champion! I've heard all about your enlightened techniques for dealing with Navahkan crown princes, Purple Lord landlords, and scholars in Derm! Or Riverside thugs, for that matter, Bahzell Bloody-Hand." She rolled her eyes. "And Hurthang is another chip off exactly the same block. Both of you still think any social or political problems should be solved by hitting them over the head with rocks until they stop twitching."
"We do, do we, Kerry?" Bahzell snorted, reaching out to hug her in turn. Dame Kaeritha Seldansdaughter was broad shouldered and well muscled, yet she seemed to disappear in his embrace. Not that it had any noticeable effect on the tartness of her tongue.
"Yes, you do. In fact, both of you favor dull rocks," she shot back.
"Well, that's because we'd most likely be cutting our own fingers off if we were after using sharp ones," he replied cheerfully as he released her.
"You two probably would," she conceded, reaching past him to exchange clasped forearms with Brandark. "Still," she continued more seriously, "I agree with Hurthang. Things are developing a definite potential for turning ugly."
"They've been that way from the beginning, Kerry," Brandark pointed out.
"Of course they have. But in the last few days, it's started to seem that all our lads have targets painted on their backs," Kaeritha replied.
"All our lads?" Bahzell repeated, and she nodded.
"All of them," she said more grimly. "Gurlahn's been keeping most of your father's people fairly close to home up in the castle, but there have been some incidents with them, even so. And it's been worse for Hurthang's men."
"There's been trouble with the Order?" Bahzell turned back to Hurthang, his expression concerned, and Hurthang grimaced.
"Not yet—not open trouble, that's to say," he said. "Truth to tell, Bahzell, I'd as lief follow Gurlahn's example and clap 'em all up here in the temple, but—"
He shrugged, and Bahzell nodded in understanding. Hurthang was the official commander of the detachment from the Hurgrum Order of Tomanāk which had come along to Balthar to establish formal communion with the Church of Tomanāk outside the hradani homeland. Although both Bahzell and Kaeritha, as champions of Tomanāk, technically outranked him, Hurthang was the senior member of the Hurgrum chapter present and the one officially in charge of regularizing its relationship with the Church at large.
Fortunately, Taraman Wararrow, the senior priest of Tomanāk in Balthar, had proved a broad-minded sort of fellow. He'd actually taken the arrival of a clutch of bloodthirsty Horse Stealer hradani claiming to be servants of the War God in stride. And he'd managed to convince Sir Markhalt Ravencaw, the commander of the small detachment of the Order's knights and lay brothers assigned to the Balthar temple, to go along with him, as well.
The Order wasn't as well represented in the Kingdom of the Sothōii as it was in the Empire of the Axe or the Empire of the Spear. It was respected, of course. Indeed, the King's younger brother, Prince Yurokhas, was an outspoken member of the Order, and the temples of Tomanāk were usually well attended. But the Order itself maintained only two official chapters in the entire Kingdom: one in Sōthōfalas, King Markhos' capital, and one in Nachfalas, where its members could keep an eye on the Ghoul Moor and the river brigands. Those two chapters maintained detachments on semipermanent assignment to the temples in most of the Sothōii's cities and larger towns, but the bulk of their manpower remained concentrated in their home chapter houses. Which meant that the eighteen members of the Hurgrum Chapter who had accompanied Bahzell, Kaeritha, and Hurthang to Balthar actually outnumbered Sir Markhalt's detachment.
Markhalt and Father Taraman might have taken the Horse Stealers' arrival in stride, after the first inevitable moments of eye-goggling shock. One or two members of Markhalt's detachment had found the situation much more difficult to accept, however. And if the members of the Order itself had qualms, it was scarcely surprising that Sothōii who were not members of the Order (and did remember the better part of a millennium of mutual hradani-Sothōii slaughter), had profound reservations about the entire notion.
But despite that, the situation had seemed to be under control when Bahzell and Brandark returned to Hurgrum for their brief visit with Prince Bahnak. If it hadn't seemed that way, Bahzell would never have gone.
"How bad is it?" he asked now.
"Mostly naught but words, although I'll not deny some of 'em have been uglier than I'd've stomached without blood if I'd only myself to be thinking of. But it's in my mind that at least some of them as've been flinging those words about are hopeful some of our lads will slip into the Rage if they goad 'em hard enough."
"That would be just a bit hard on whoever provoked them into it," Brandark observed in a tone whose mildness fooled no one.
"True," Kaeritha agreed. "But I think Hurthang is right. And I've noticed that when the hecklers are at their most provocative, there's usually a crowd around." Bahzell cocked his ears at her, and she shrugged. "They may actually be foolish enough to think that a dozen or so friends would be enough to save them from a hradani in the Rage."
"Maybe some folk would be," Bahzell snorted, "but these people are after knowing hradani better than most. I'm thinking as how it would take a mighty stupid Sothōii to be making that particular mistake."
"And has it been your observation that most blind, pigheaded, dyed-in-the-wool bigots aren't stupid?" Kaeritha inquired.
"Aye, there's truth enough in that," he conceded. "I'd sooner be able to say there wasn't, but wishing won't make it so." He shook his head. "I've a nasty feeling there's more than one set of manipulators in it, too."
"Likely enough," Kaeritha agreed. "And I doubt it's going to get much better anytime soon."
"Well, at least we're not after having Gharnal to worry about," Hurthang said with a grimace.
"Ah, well, as to that . . ." Bahzell allowed his voice to trail off, and Hurthang looked at him with sudden sharp suspicion.
"Aye?" he prompted ominously as Bahzell's pause stretched out.
"Well, it's just that I've a message for you from Vaijon," Bahzell said, and Hurthang's suspicious eye narrowed.
Sir Vaijon of Almerhas was the youthful knight who'd been assigned to the Belhadan chapter of the Order of Tomanāk when Bahzell arrived there. His anti-hradani prejudices had been so hugely offended by the idea of a hradani champion of Tomanāk that he'd found himself facing Bahzell in trial by combat. He'd entered the combat arrogantly certain of victory only to emerge astonished by his own survival, and somehow the youngster had ended up not only a champion of Tomanāk himself, but the sword brother Bahzell had left behind to oversee the organization of the hradani branch of the Order.
"And just what might it be that Vaijon's after telling me?" Hurthang demanded.
"As to that, most of it's after being routine enough," Bahzell said in a reassuring tone. "He says as how Father's deeded another manor to the Order, at Tharkhul, up on the Hangnysti. And he's been after making progress getting the new Bloody Swords settled in amongst us nasty Horse Stealers. And—"
"And something about Gharnal, I'm thinking?" Hurthang rumbled.
"Well, aye," Bahzell agreed with a slow smile. "There was after being something about him."
"Then you'd best be spitting it out while I'm still remembering you're after being a champion and all so I'm not supposed to be thumping your head for you," Hurthang told him grimly.
"It's naught to be worrying about at all, at all," Bahzell said soothingly. "Naught but a little matter of a reassignment, as you might be saying."
"Bahzell!" It was Kaeritha, with a twinkle in her eye. "You're not saying that Vaijon is assigning Gharnal to Hurthang?"
"Aye," Bahzell said, with an expression of consummate innocence. "And why shouldn't he be?"
"Gharnal?" Hurthang stared at him, then shook his head. Gharnal, Bahzell's foster brother, possessed many good qualities, however . . .
"Bahzell," Kaeritha said for Hurthang, "Gharnal isn't exactly, um . . . how shall I say this? Not exactly the most tactful member of the Order. In fact, he's the only person I know who makes you and Hurthang look like effete, overcivilized diplomats. What in the world is Vaijon thinking of?"
"As to that, I'm not so very sure," Bahzell acknowledged. "It was after being Gharnal's very own idea, but Vaijon says as how it 'felt' right when he asked. As to why Gharnal might be wanting to be sent into such as this, I've no least idea what maggot's invaded his brain, and no more does he, as far as I can be telling. But let's us be honest here, Hurthang. Vaijon's been after making less mistakes with the Order than you or I most likely would, so I'm thinking we'd best not quibble here." He flicked his ears and shrugged. "It just might be as how himself is after poking a finger back into the pie. Any road, he'll be arriving tomorrow morning, so we'd best be battening down."
"You think Tomanāk Himself might want Gharnal up here among all these hradani-hating Sothōii?" Clearly, despite her own champion's status, Kaeritha found the possibility difficult to accept.
"And why not?" Bahzell grinned wryly. "It's not as if we've not had proof enough of himself's sense of humor, Kerry! After all, look where Vaijon was after ending up!"
"Um." Kaeritha closed her mouth on a fresh objection, then nodded. "You're right," she said after a moment. "If He can send Vaijon of Almerhas to Hurgrum, then there's no reason He couldn't send Gharnal here . . . even if the mere thought of it does send a chill down my spine. On the other hand, I'm afraid that even adding Gharnal to the mess isn't going to make it a lot worse. In fact—"
Bahzell turned towards the raised voice that wasn't quite a shout, although it seemed like one in the temple's quiet precincts.
Brother Relath, one of Father Taraman's acolytes, hurried up the temple nave towards them, his youthful face screwed up in an expression of deep concern . . . or something worse.
"Milord Champion!" he repeated as he slid to a halt before Bahzell, panting slightly. "Come quickly! There's trouble!"
* * *
Relath, Bahzell thought sourly when he reached the temple doors, had a distinct gift for understatement.
Thalgahr Rarikson—one of the Horse Stealer warriors his father had assigned to his official bodyguard, rather than a member of the Hurgrum Order—had accompanied him to the temple as the "official" bodyguard Sothōii protocol demanded of any ambassador, be he ever so unofficial. Like most hradani, Thalgahr had little enough use for any god—of Light or Dark—and so, however much he might respect Tomanāk, he'd chosen to stay outside, sheltering from the misting rain under the portico which protected the temple's main entrance.
Prince Bahnak had handpicked the members of Bahzell's guard. He was perfectly well aware of how delicate a balancing act Bahzell confronted, and he also knew how assiduously Sothōii who disapproved of Tellian's initiative would attempt to provoke incidents designed to joggle Bahzell's elbow. Which was why he'd chosen men whose discipline and ability to control their tempers he could trust.
The men he'd selected had regarded their inclusion among Bahzell's guardsmen as a high honor, proof of their chieftain's confidence in both their loyalty and their capacity to resist the inevitable provocations. At the moment, however, Thalgahr looked as if he was regretting the fact that his Prince's eye had fallen upon him for this duty.
Bahzell swallowed a curse as he took in the tableau. Thalgahr stood with his back to the temple wall, and the set of his shoulders under his chain hauberk suggested that he'd put it there to keep daggers out of it. His right hand was carefully away from his sword hilt, but the way his wrist was cocked told Bahzell he was ready to draw steel instantly. Worse, the half-flattened ears and the fire burning at the backs of his eyes told any hradani that Thalgahr was fighting a bitter battle to restrain the Rage, the berserker curse of his people.
" . . . back where your kind belong, you murdering, thieving bastard—away from civilized people!" someone shouted from the damp crowd of Sothōii which had assembled itself on the brightly colored pavement as if by magic in the brief time Bahzell had been inside the temple. It was still a crowd, not yet anything which might have been called a mob, but Bahzell felt it hovering on the brink and realized it could go either way with no more warning than an avalanche in snow country. Worse, several of its members seemed more than a little sympathetic to the taunts and vituperation the heckler was spouting.
Thalgahr said nothing in response to the human's invective, but his ears flattened still further.
"Yes!" someone else shouted. "We've had a bellyful of you raping, horse-stealing—horse-killing—bastards! Are you really stupid enough to think you can fool us by pretending you're not the sneaking, backstabbing cowards your kind have always been, hradani?"
There were more than a few mutters of agreement from the crowd, this time, but Bahzell's eyes narrowed with more than simple anger as they found the two bravos who were doing all the shouting. The pair of hecklers were obviously working as a team, and both of them were better equipped than a typical street tough. They wore traditional Sothōii steel cuirasses, but they wore them over chain hauberks, not the usual boiled leather of the Sothōii cavalryman, and their swords were of excellent, dwarvish work. The straps which ought to have been buttoned across the quillons of those swords to keep them in their sheaths had been unbuttoned, as well, and though they tried to hide it from casual observers, their own expressions and body language were those of men poised on the brink of violence.
"I say the only good hradani is one lying in a ditch with his throat slit and his balls in his cold, dead hand! What d'you think of that, hradani?" the first heckler sneered, and Bahzell took one stride towards the broad steps leading up to the temple from the roadway below. Then he stopped as a strong, slender hand gripped his elbow.
"If you get involved in this," Kaeritha said to him, too quietly for anyone else to hear through the fresh round of taunting obscenities being flung at Thalgahr, "you give them exactly what they want. And the same goes for Hurthang and Brandark."
"And if I'm not after getting 'involved,' " he growled back, "Thalgahr will be flashing over into the Rage and carving those two idiots into short ribs and roasts in about one more minute."
"They're trying to make this a matter of human--versus-hradani," she told him, hanging onto his elbow with steely fingers. "You can't afford to play their game for them. Let me handle it."
Bahzell began an immediate, instinctive protest. Not because he doubted her capability, but because Thalgahr was one of Prince Bahnak's troopers, not a member of Tomanāk's Order, and he wanted to keep Kaeritha out of a mess which didn't concern her. He opened his mouth, but the glint in her sapphire eyes closed it again with a click.
"Better, Sword Brother," she told him as she released her grip on his elbow and turned it into an approving pat. "How wise of you not to insult me by suggesting that my brother's problems aren't mine."
He glowered at her, and she strolled past him with a chuckle, carrying her quarterstaff in her left hand.
Thalgahr never noticed her presence until she'd stepped past him, but the two hecklers were another matter. One of them nudged the other, pointing at her with his chin, and their suddenly wary expressions said that they knew exactly who she was.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," she said mildly into the sudden silence. "I'm sure you wouldn't want anyone to doubt your respect for Tomanāk, but perhaps you hadn't realized that creating this sort of an uproar on the steps of His house isn't exactly polite."
"I'm a free Sothōii subject," one of the hecklers shot back. "I've the right to speak my mind anywhere!"
"Of course you do," she said soothingly, and gripped her staff in both hands so that she could round her shoulders and lean her weight on it. Her posture was eloquently nonthreatening, and she smiled. "I'm simply suggesting that this isn't the best possible place for this, um, conversation."
"And who are you to suggest anything to us?" The spokesman for the pair spat on the paving. "Some kind of hradani-lover? What—you couldn't find a human to keep you warm at night?"
One or two onlookers shifted uneasily at the last remark. Kaeritha had drawn almost as much attention in Balthar as Bahzell himself. Sothōii minds seemed to have a great deal of trouble wrapping themselves about the concept of any female knight, much less one who was acknowledged as a champion of TomanākHimself. But however outre or even disgraceful they might find the notion, all of the gossip her arrival had generated at least guaranteed that everyone in that crowd knew precisely who she was. And it would seem that even some of those who approved of hradani-baiting were less prepared to publicly insult a woman . . . and a champion.
"You seem to make a habit of leaping to conclusions, friend," Kaeritha said mildly into the sudden hush. "First you assume humans are somehow better than hradani, and then you compound your initial error by making all sorts of unfounded assumptions about me." She shook her head. "Personally, I think you should be devoting at least a little thought to all of the trouble that sort of impetuosity could end up dropping you into."
"Trouble?" the man laughed scornfully. "Oh, I know who you are now. You're that what's-her-name—Kaeritha, wasn't it? The woman who claims to be a knight? A champion of Tomanāk? Hah! That's almost as funny as claiming he is!"
A contemptuous thumb jerked in Bahzell's direction, and the hradani's eyes narrowed further. They were getting to the nub of it now, he realized, and he suddenly wondered if his own initial assumption had been in error. Was it possible these two actually were operating on their own? The anger in the heckler's voice and face seemed completely genuine, with a degree of passion Bahzell wouldn't have expected to see in the average paid provocateur. And the gods knew there were more than enough humans, and not simply among the Sothōii, who considered themselves true followers of Tomanāk and would still find the very suggestion that the War God might welcome hradani followers rankest blasphemy. Adding that view to the traditional Sothōii antipathy for women warriors could easily produce a blind, driving anger.
Not, he reminded himself, that the fact that they truly were angry meant that they weren't working with—or for—someone else entirely. As Brandark had said, bigots' hatred only made them even easier to manipulate.
"Friend," Kaeritha's tone was still mild, but her eyes were hard, "I don't believe Tomanāk would be particularly pleased by all this shouting and carrying on outside His front door. If you have some sort of problem with me and you'd care to discuss it calmly and in private, like a sensible person, I'm at your disposal. But I'd really appreciate it if you'd stop making such a public nuisance of yourself in front of His temple. In fact, I'm going to have to insist that you do. Now."
" 'Public nuisance' is it?" The heckler pushed closer to her, standing no more than four or five feet away as he looked her up and down, head to toe, with an elaborate sneer. "Better than standing here in His colors like a public whore trying to pretend she's some kind of noblewoman, I say!"
The silence behind him was suddenly profound. Even his partner seemed taken aback by his last sentence. However unhappy the average Sothōii might be over the thought of a female champion, he would never have dreamed of addressing such language to a woman of rank in public. The second heckler looked as if he would cheerfully have strangled his friend, but it was too late to disassociate himself from him now.
"There you go, making more of those assumptions," Kaeritha said into the quiet, in a tone compounded of equal parts weariness and resignation. She shook her head. "Me, some kind of noblewoman?" She snorted and thumped the iron-shod heel of her upright quarterstaff lightly on a paving stone. "What sort of 'noblewoman' carries one of these?"
She chuckled, and the heckler's expression abruptly acquired an edge of perplexity. Clearly, her reaction was unlike anything he'd anticipated.
"No," she continued, sliding one hand thoughtfully along the staff's use-polished shaft. "I was born a peasant, friend." She shrugged. "There's no point trying to pretend otherwise, and truth to tell, I don't see any reason I ought to. One thing about Tomanāk, He doesn't seem to mind where His followers come from. The Order made me a knight, and He made me a champion, but nobody ever made me a noblewoman. Which is unfortunate for you, I'm afraid."
She smiled thinly at him, and he frowned back uncertainly, obviously confused about where she was headed.
"You see," she explained to him calmly, "if I were a noblewoman, I'd probably be all upset and flustered by all those nasty things you said about me. Noblewomen don't approve of public brawls or shouting matches, so I wouldn't have the least idea what to do about them, or how to respond to your rudeness. But if you say things like that to a peasant, she doesn't get upset. No," Kaeritha shook her head again, "she just gets even."
He was still frowning at her in confusion when she took one precise step forward, the quarterstaff snapped up, and its iron end cap smashed down on the arch of his right foot in a vicious, vertical blow any piledriver might have envied.
Kaeritha Seldansdaughter might be short compared to a hradani, but she was quite tall—and very, very strong—for a human woman, and the heckler let out an unearthly screech as she brought the staff crunching down with both hands. The soft leather upper of his boot offered no protection against such a blow, and the sound it made was remarkably like the one produced by crushing a wicker basket with a hammer.
Despite himself, Bahzell winced in sympathy, but Kaeritha's expression didn't even flicker as her victim jerked his wounded foot up where he could clasp it in both hands. He hopped on his other foot, howling in precariously balanced anguish, and she whipped the lower end of the staff up in a perfectly timed and placed blow to his left knee. Administered with even the slightest error, that stroke could have crippled her victim for life, but Bahzell had watched Kaeritha working out with her staff too often to worry about that. He had no doubt that the heckler's kneecap, unlike his foot, was intact, whatever it might feel like, but the hapless loudmouth went down as if he were a sapling and Kaeritha's staff were an axe she'd just applied to his roots.
He hit the paving with a fresh bellow of agony, and even before he landed, the staff was back upright before Kaeritha, and she was leaning on it once more. He writhed and twisted on the ground, hands flashing back and forth between foot and knee, clearly unable to decide which source of anguish most required comforting, and Kaeritha shook her head. Her eyes, Bahzell noticed, never left the heckler's companion. The object of her attention seemed as well aware of it as the hradani, and he was very careful to keep his hands away from any weapon.
"There now!" Kaeritha said scoldingly to the writhing man at her feet. "You went and made me forget how important it is for a miserable imposter like me to ape a proper noblewoman's manners if I want to fool anyone!" She sighed and shook her head mournfully while the stunned onlookers began to laugh. "I suppose it just goes to show, you can take the girl out of the peasant village, but you can't take the peasant out of the girl, can you?"
"And I suppose you're thinking as how this was a tactful, diplomatic way to be handling our little problem?" Bahzell asked in a quiet voice, one eyebrow quirked and his ears half-cocked, when she turned her back on the writhing heckler and strolled casually back up the temple steps to him. He shook his head. "I'm thinking it may be you're the one to be a mite more careful about 'local sensibilities' and being diplomatic and all."
"Why?" she asked innocently, while the crowd laughed harder than ever behind her. "He survived, didn't he?"