Slate-gray seawater blew back in explosions of white as the twin- masted schooner sliced through the swell. The eastern sky ahead of her was brushed with rose and gold, a dawn that offered beauty to the eye if no warmth to cold-pinched fingers and noses, and ice glittered on her stays. The low, sleek vessel's flag-green, badged with a golden seagull-and black hull proclaimed her Marfang Island registry. Not that any flags were needed. A prudent seaman would have taken at least one reef, but she leaned well over to the wind, driven hard by a captain who was, to say the least, confident. Others would have used a less complimentary adjective as they watched white water cascade over her leeward rails like a tide race.
Some argued that Marfang Islanders took risks sane people went far out of their ways to avoid specifically because of their small size, as a sort of compensation for standing little more than three feet tall. Others held that they deliberately courted danger in an effort to prove that the reputation for cowardice which clung to other halflings did not apply to them, while still others claimed that it was all because of something in Marfang Island's water. Any or all of the theories could well be true, yet in the end the "why" mattered less than the "what," and any deep-water sailor who saw that schooner's driving approach to Belhadan Bay would instantly proclaim that her skipper and crew must be Marfangers.
And he would have been right… mostly. But not entirely, for two of the figures working about her deck were hradani who towered above their companions. One was perhaps an inch or two over six feet, which was quite enough to make him loom over the ivory-horned halflings about him, but the other was at least seven and a half feet tall. That made him a giant even for his native Horse Stealer tribe, and someone like him had no business on the deck of a vessel scaled to halflings, yet he moved among them with a nimbleness at odds with his stature, lending his massive weight and strength wherever it was most needed.
"Don't just stand there like a whore at a wedding, Master Holderman! Trim that foresheet! It's slacker than those idlers you call seamen!"
The words roared from the quarterdeck through Evark Pitchallow's leather speaking trumpet, and his first mate grimaced. Then he waved acknowledgment aft and began snapping orders of his own. The schooner's crew had just finished shaking out the reefs that even Evark carried overnight in these waters in winter, and the mate was pleased with how efficiently they'd done so. In fact, there were at most a few inches of slack in the offending foresheet, but the word panache might have been coined specifically for Captain Pitchallow, and Holderman knew better than to argue with him. Nor did the seamen who hurried to obey his orders show any inclination to dawdle, for Belhadan Bay was the largest (and busiest) port of the Empire of the Axe. Every professional seaman in the world passed through it sooner or later, and Pitchallow's crew knew he wasn't about to stand for their embarrassing him in front of his peers, even if they did have two out-sized, half-trained landlubbers getting in their way.
Something between a word and a grunt came through the speaking trumpet in an expression of what was probably satisfaction, and Holderman drew a deep breath and nodded to the men about him. Several grinned at him, as accustomed as he to their captain's ways, and he was hard put not to grin back. But he'd earned his own master's ticket last year, and he had high hopes of winning command of his own ship when Wind Dancer returned home. The city of Refuge boasted Marfang Island's only true deep-water harbor, and for all its inhabitants' small size, that made it the home port of the finest seamen in all Orfressa. Evark Pitchallow stood high among that select company, and his recommendation would almost guarantee Holderman a captain's berth. Which meant it was time to begin practicing his own captain's demeanor, and so he simply repeated his nod and made his way to the rail.
He crossed the deck carefully. Marfangers were daring and intrepid, but reputation notwithstanding, they weren't foolish. Or not totally so, at least. Holderman used the safety lines rigged across the treacherously wet planks with as much care as he insisted any of his seamen take, then clung to a stay and peered ahead along Wind Dancer's course.
The wind of the open sea cut like icy swords, striking tears from his eyes and offering to freeze his very skin off. Showers of lashing spray made it no more pleasant, but these northern waters were as familiar to Holderman as the warmer, milder ones around his southern homeland, and compared to what conditions could have been at this time of year, this was an almost balmy day.
He sucked in a huge lungful of the sea's brutal freshness and watched the mountains looming steadily higher above the eastern horizon. There was snow on the taller of those peaks year round, but now their heads glittered a rose-tinged white as they loomed against the dawn, and the masthead lookouts kept a close watch. Belhadan's location as the northernmost ice-free port of the Empire helped explain its importance, but it wasn't so far south that drift ice or icebergs were unheard of. Indeed, given his own preferences, Holderman thought he might actually have reduced sail, or at least left the night's reefs in rather than shaking them out, if only to give himself a little more time to avoid any ice his lookouts spotted. But the decision wasn't his, and at least visibility was excellent.
He felt rather than saw a huge presence looming up behind him and turned to glance over his shoulder at the taller of the two nonhalflings in Wind Dancer's crew.
"And how long would it be to reach yonder mountains?" a cavern-deep bass rumbled in a wind-whipped cloud of steamy breath.
"Oh, we should fetch the harbor in another two or three hours," Holderman replied. He turned, still maintaining his grip on the stay, and looked up at the other with frank curiosity. "Have you and Brandark given any more thought to your plans?"
"No, but not for want of trying. We've nothing at all to be basing plans on, you see, and I'm thinking the Axemen may be after being just a wee bit unhappy to see us."
"How unreasonable of them," Holderman said dryly. "Why, I can't think of anything that would make me happier than having a couple of hradani come ashore in my port."
A deep, booming laugh answered him, and a shovel-sized hand thumped him on the shoulder. It was a gentle thump, given the size and strength of the hand's owner, but Holderman staggered anyway. He glared up at the huge hradani, yet his heart wasn't in it, which kept him from generating the intended power.
"I'll thank you not to knock me over the rail, lummox! I've spent ten years at sea without drowning yet, and I'd just as soon not start now."
"Drown, is it? And here was I, thinking as how Marfang Islanders learned to breathe water when they were no more than wee, tiny fellows!" The hradani paused just a moment, then added, "But then, you're always wee, tiny fellows, so it might just be I'd the wrong of exactly when you're after learning, mightn't it?"
He tilted his head and cocked his foxlike ears at an angle that mirrored the devilish sparkle in his brown eyes, and Holderman snorted.
"I'd spend some time watching 'wee, tiny' sharks finish off a whale before I got too complacent about my size, Bahzell Bahanakson!" he said, and the hradani raised a hand in the gesture of a fencer acknowledging a touch. He gave the first officer another white-toothed smile, then turned and crossed to his fellow hradani's side, and Holderman watched him go.
It wasn't easy for someone that huge to maneuver about Wind Dancer's decks, but Bahzell moved with an easy balance which seemed profoundly unnatural, especially to a halfling, in anyone his size. Either of his legs alone would easily have outweighed Holderman, and the blade of the sword he carried ashore was at least a foot longer than the tallest halfling aboard, but he could fit into amazingly tight quarters when he had to. His companion Brandark was over a foot shorter than he, yet Bahzell had made himself much more quickly at ease aboard the schooner. Perhaps, Holderman mused, that was because Bahzell, at least, could swim. Brandark couldn't, and the first officer suspected that had made him more than a little tentative when it came to finding his sea legs.
Yet he'd found them in the end, and he'd learned much more about Wind Dancer than Bahzell had. Not that Bahzell had been disinterested or tried to avoid doing his share and a little to spare aboard ship. But the Horse Stealer saw the schooner mainly as a means of getting from one port to another, while Brandark saw deeper than that. Bahzell had learned to obey the orders of the skilled professionals about him; Brandark had learned why those orders were given.
Holderman watched the two hradani talk with their heads close together while water creamed up over the lee rails and raced at their feet. He couldn't hear them through the sound of wind and wave, the creak and groan of timbers, and the high-pitched song of the rigging, but he'd heard them chaffering often enough to have a shrewd notion of what they were saying, and he shook his own head.
Marfangers knew more than most people about hradani, for their homeland lay directly across the Wild Wash Channel from the hradani clans of the same name. Yet for all their fierceness in battle and predilection for carrying off anything not nailed to the earth, the Wild Wash clans' reputations were but shadows of those of the Horse Stealers or Brandark's native Bloody Swords. Wind Dancer's crew had heard all about their savagery and mutual hatred, despite their northern homelands' isolation, long before Bahzell and Brandark had come aboard. In fact, every Norfressan (with the possible exception of a few hermits among the desert-riding Wakuo nomads) had heard about the Horse Stealers and Bloody Swords, and no one wanted a thing to do with either of them.
And that was what puzzled Holderman whenever he looked at Wind Dancer's passengers. They should have gone for one another's throats on sight, which made their deep and obvious friendship confusing enough, but neither was remotely like their people's reputations in most other ways, either. That, Holderman reflected, might indicate that hradani reputation was as misleading as some of the wilder tales told about his own folk, but it didn't explain why these two differed so… profoundly from the stereotypes.
Brandark was bad enough. The kindest description of the Bloody Swords emphasized their contempt for the weakening influence of anything smacking of civilization, yet Brandark favored lace-fronted shirts and embroidered jerkins which would have done a Purple Lord proud. Worse, he was the best educated person aboard Wind Dancer, although he was entirely self-taught. And to top things off, he was a skilled musician, despite the loss of two fingers, who could play the bawdiest tune a seaman could name or spend hours staring into a lamp flame while he stroked soft, haunting beauty from his balalaika. His voice, unfortunately, was something else again. Not even his closest friend would call it beautiful, and Holderman was almost relieved that it was so. The notion of a hradani scholar and dandy was hard enough to cope with; he rather doubted he could have gotten his mind around the concept of a Bloody Sword bard.
On the other hand, even that idea might have been easier to adjust to than that of a Horse Stealer champion of Tomanak . Like the rest of Wind Dancer's company, Holderman had felt nothing but scorn when seven and a half feet of stark naked hradani had swum half way across Bortalik Bay, climbed over the rail, and calmly claimed to be one of the war god's chosen champions. The assertion had been preposterous and probably blasphemous, given the fact that there hadn't been a single hradani champion of any God of Light in the twelve centuries since the Fall of Kontovar. Besides, every Norfressan child knew the hradani had served as the Carnadosan traitors' shock troops in the war which had destroyed the empire which once ruled Orfressa's southern continent. That was why they were universally distrusted and shunned, if not actively hated. Well, that and the berserk, uncontrollable bloodlust Bahzell's people called "the Rage." No one, after all, wanted to get too friendly with a gigantic barbarian who might suddenly take it into his head to chop one into teeny, tiny pieces for no particular reason.
Holderman was prepared to admit that stereotypes tended to be exaggerated, yet he'd found it impossible to believe that Tomanak Orfro, Keeper of the Scales of Orr, the Sword of Light, God of Justice, and Captain-General of the Gods of Light as well as God of War, would pick a champion from such unpromising material. But Tomanak had done just that. The powers of the champion's blade Bahzell bore had proved it, and Bahzell's champion status, even more than the fury he'd waked among the Purple Lords whom Captain Pitchallow hated with every fiber of his being, explained the speed with which Wind Dancer's master had granted him and Brandark passage to Belhadan. Not that Pitchallow wouldn't have cheerfully rescued anyone who could infuriate the Purple Lords. Under most circumstances, however, he would at least have required them to pay their passages-he was a Marfang halfling, after all-and he'd flatly refused to take a copper kormak from Bahzell.
That hadn't kept him from insisting that they pull their weight aboard ship, but it was a sign of his high regard for the hradani, and he and Bahzell had spent many a late night with their heads together. No one else-aside, perhaps, from Brandark-had any idea precisely what the captain and Bahzell had found to discuss so earnestly, but Pitchallow's devotion to Korthrala, the sea god, was as well known as it was strong. And although even his own followers admitted that Korthrala wasn't overblessed with wisdom by divine standards, he was Tomanak's younger brother and firm ally, so perhaps it wasn't so very surprising that one of his churchmen should have a lot to say to a brand new champion of the war god. Especially one who needed advice as badly as Bahzell Bahnakson was likely to need it.
Now, as he watched the two hradani shade their eyes with their hands, gazing at the approaching mountains while they talked, Holderman said a small, sincere prayer of his own for them. He might be less devout than his captain, but given what Wind Dancer's two guests were likely to face when they set foot ashore in Belhadan, he reflected, even his prayers couldn't do any harm.