"Don't you get just a little tired of all that?" Brandark asked in a voice just too soft for anyone else to hear, and grinned at the deadly look Bahzell gave him. The two lay-brothers who had stepped aside with bows of profound respect to let the two hradani pass fell behind, and the Horse Stealer leaned close to his friend.
"Aye, I do get a mite worn out with it," he said equally quietly, "and I'm thinking as how I'd just as soon be working out my frustrations on someone."
"Oh? Did you have a specific someone in mind?"
"No, that I didn't… until just now."
Brandark chuckled but let the opening pass. He was reasonably certain Bahzell was only joking, but the Horse Stealer's exasperation was real, and there were times it was more prudent not to prove or disprove a theory.
The deference the lay-brothers had just shown had become the norm over the last two days, and Bahzell found it even more difficult to deal with, in a very different way, than the hostility which had preceded it. Hostility was something any hradani had no choice but to learn how to cope with if he meant to travel among the other Races of Man. Admiration, awe, and near deification were something else entirely, and very few hradani had ever been offered the opportunity to deal with them.
Yet there was no avoiding them now. The knights of Tomanak knew all champions were directly and personally chosen by their god. In Bahzell's case, however, that was no mere intellectual awareness. Tomanak Himself had manifested-personally-to make His choice clear. Worse, from Bahzell's perspective, He had left once more… leaving Bahzell to take the brunt of His worshipers' religious awe. Even Yorhus and Adiskael-or, perhaps, especially Yorhus and Adiskael-had taken pains to make plain their allegiance to Tomanak and Bahzell, in that order.
"Actually," Brandark went on as the two of them reached the larger quarters to which Charrow and Mistress Quarelle had insisted upon transferring Bahzell following "The Visitation," as Brandark had christened Tomanak's appearance, "the situation is an improvement. Mind you, I can see where having everyone falling over themselves bowing to you could get, um, bothersome, but it's certainly better than worrying over who might want to leave a dagger in your back some fine night."
"Humph!" Bahzell snorted. He shoved the door open and nodded Brandark through it, and the Bloody Sword stopped short as Sir Vaijon looked up from the breastplate he was polishing.
"Greetings, Lord Brandark," the golden-haired knight said cheerfully, then looked at Bahzell. "Good morning, Milord Champion," he said, and inclined his head in a small bow.
"I'm thinking as how I could shine that up myself, if it were after needing it. Which it isn't," Bahzell rumbled back with a hint of disapproval, and Vaijon shrugged.
"So you could, Milord. But I had no other pressing duties, and I was taught that caring for his master's gear is a proper duty for any squire."
"Squire?" Bahzell's ears cocked and his eyebrows rose. "I've no memory of saying as how I'd take on any squires."
"There was no need for you to," Vaijon replied with a serenity Bahzell found very difficult, even in the wake of divine intervention, to reconcile with the arrogantly superior pain in the backside he remembered. "Tomanak assigned me Himself." The young man allowed himself a small smile. "Even Sir Charrow agreed with me about that, Milord, when he authorized me to move my possessions to your chambers."
"When he what?" Bahzell blurted, but Vaijon only gave another of those serene nods and returned to polishing the breastplate. The Horse Stealer stared at him in disbelief, then shook his head.
"Now look here, lad," he began in his most reasonable tone. "I'm willing enough to admit himself had it in mind for me to be, well-" He glanced at Brandark, and his discomfort kicked up another notch as his friend adopted a painfully neutral expression, crossed to the hearth, and busied himself poking up the fire. Bahzell glowered at his back for a moment, then looked back at Vaijon and made himself continue. "Well, to be taking you under my wing, as you might say, until you've worked all that pompous fuss and feathers out of your head. But he never said a word at all, at all, about 'squires,' and I've not the least tiniest notion how to go about having one, even if he had!"
"It's not difficult, Milord," Vaijon assured him, running his cloth one last time over the breastplate. Then he lifted the burnished steel, turning it under the light to inspect it, carried it to the armor tree, and hung it carefully with the rest of Bahzell's mail. "A squire looks after his lord's personal gear and horses. If they're in the field, he looks after his lord's tent and meals, as well. In winter quarters, he keeps his lord's chamber neat and sees to his appointments and any other minor tasks that need doing."
He turned to smile at Bahzell, and the hradani crossed his arms.
"And just what is it he's after getting in return for all this slavelike devotion?" he demanded.
"Why, his lord trains him, Milord."
"How?" Vaijon's smile turned into a faint frown of incomprehension, and Bahzell shrugged. "It's new I am to championing, Vaijon, and I've still less experience at anything to do with knights and knighthoods. You'd best be remembering that when it comes time to explain about such."
"Of course, Milord." The young man-who, Bahzell suddenly realized, wore a plain, utilitarian surcoat utterly devoid of gems or bullion embroidery-rubbed his chin for a moment, as if seeking exactly the right words. "The most important things a squire learns from his lord, Milord, are skill at arms and the proper deportment of a knight. As you bested me with considerable ease, it seems painfully evident you have a great deal to teach me about the former, and-" he blushed faintly "-Tomanak Himself made it quite plain you have even more to teach me about deportment. That's why I feel He intended me as your squire, not just a 'trainee.' I would be honored far beyond my deserts to learn from you, and the performance of such duties as normally fall to a squire would seem far too little repayment for my lessons."
Vaijon's quiet sincerity took Bahzell aback. Despite everything, including Tomanak's intervention, a major portion of his brain had continued to think of Vaijon as the conceited, egotistical peacock who'd met Wind Dancer at the docks, and he felt a stab of shame as he realized that. Gods knew the original Sir Vaijon had deserved all he'd gotten, but Prince Bahnak had taught his sons better than to think that no one could learn from experience. Hradani notions of justice were severe, as they must be among a people afflicted by the Rage, but they were also fair. Punishment was meted out to suit the offense; once it had been administered, the account was squared, and no wise clan lord or war leader continued to hold the past against his followers. That, after all, was one of the functions of punishment: to teach anyone capable of learning, whether from personal experience or from the example of others.
And as Bahzell gazed at the younger man, he realized not only that Vaijon had learned but that the knight-probationer was genuinely grateful for his lesson. That was a sobering thought, for Bahzell was only too aware of how seldom he had been grateful for the lessons of his own past. Especially the ones which involved bruises. Which, now that he thought about it, seemed to account for a majority of the ones which had stuck with him.
"I'd not put it quite that way myself, lad," he said after a moment, and waved for Vaijon to sit back down at the table while he seated himself in the out-sized chair beside the fire. Brandark took the opportunity to disappear into his own rooms in an unwonted display of tact, and Bahzell rested one heel on the raised hearth while he gazed down into the burning coal.
"It's glad enough I'll be to teach you what I know of arms," he went on after another pause. "Mind you, I'm thinking you've been taught well enough already. It was overconfidence and anger got you into trouble-that, and the way you'd underestimated what I might be doing because you were so all fired busy with what you meant to be doing… and so sure no hradani could really measure up to himself's standards."
He glanced up and smiled as the younger man flushed in embarrassment. The flush grew darker for an instant, but there was too much sympathy in his smile for Vaijon to resent it, and the human smiled back hesitantly.
"I wish I could dispute your analysis, Milord," he said, and Bahzell chuckled.
"Don't be taking it too hard, lad. It's the way of young bucks to make mistakes. Tomanak knows I did-aye, and it's lucky I was they didn't cost me far more than yours cost you! There's no shame in admitting past mistakes; only in making 'em over again."
"I understand, Milord," Vaijon said, and, for the first time, he truly did.
"Well, if you're after understanding that much, understand this, as well," Bahzell went on seriously. "I'm no knight, Vaijon, and I've no least desire to be one. In fact, the very notion makes me come all over queasy. I know that's not something as you find easy to understand, but it's true enough. And I'll not take you nor anyone else as a 'squire,' either." He held the younger man's eyes levelly. "But this I will do. I'll keep an eye on you as himself was asking, and I'll teach you whatever there is for me to teach, as you asked. And if I'll not have you as a servant, I will have you as a friend and companion."
A light began to glow in those blue eyes, and he raised a warning hand.
"Best be thinking before you leap after it like a fish after a fly, my lad, for I've been casting my mind over what himself was saying. I'm thinking it's past time Brandark and I were on our way to Hurgrum, and Gods only know what sort of trouble we'll be finding there! Not to mention that it's high winter and the snow's horse-belly deep betwixt here and there. Or that we'll have to be crossing Bloody Sword territory to get there, if we go by road, and cutting cross country in winter's as good a way as any to die. Then there's the little matter of a price on my head in Navahk. Aye, and on Brandark's, too, now I think on it. And once we get past all that-assuming we do-you'll be one lonely human amongst a crop of Horse Stealer hradani, some of whom'd just as soon cut your throat as look at you. I'll put in a word for you, you understand, but some of my folk… Well, let's just say they're after thinking about humans like you were thinking about hradani. There's some would look at all that and think two or three times before deciding as how they'd want to be my friend, I'm thinking!"
"I'm sure there are, Milord," Vaijon agreed, and smiled. "When do we leave?"
"You mean to what?" Charrow looked at Bahzell with the expression of a man who devoutly hoped he'd misheard.
"I've dallied long enough," Bahzell told the knight-captain with unwonted seriousness. He stood in the library, his back to the fire, and Vaijon stood quietly in one corner. The master of the Belhadan Chapter had been careful to take no note of the way the young knight-probationer's finery had mutated into an echo of Bahzell's utilitarian style. Nor had he drawn attention to Vaijon's new modesty of manner by praising it, although the smile he'd given his long-recalcitrant prot'eg'e had carried its own measure of approval. But Bahzell's abrupt announcement of his impending departure had snapped Charrow's attention away from Vaijon in a heartbeat.
"But… but it's high winter!" he protested. "And you've been here less than three weeks! There's so much we still have to tell you-and that you still have to tell us! And-"
"Hisht, now!" Bahzell rumbled with a crooked grin. "It's in my mind that himself already has what he was wanting out of my time here. This fine young lordling-" he jerked his head at Vaijon and winked at the younger man "-was after getting a mite out of hand, so himself had me spank him for you."
Something suspiciously like a chuckle emerged from Vaijon's corner. Under other circumstances, Charrow would have been astonished to hear it; now he scarcely noticed.
"As for the rest of your chapter," Bahzell went on more thoughtfully, "I'm thinking it was Yorhus and Adiskael and their crew himself wanted seen to." His crooked smile became something very like a grin as Charrow frowned at him. "Well, no one's ever called hradani smart, Sir Charrow, but I'd've been a right idiot not to see how the wind set with those two. But if they're after having the makings of good religious fanatics, I've a shrewd notion himself's little visit has, um, redirected their attention, hasn't it now?"
"Well, yes," Charrow admitted. In fact, he found the two knights-commander's newfound, humble piety almost more worrisome than their earlier zealotry. Charrow had seen too many people in whom humility and extremism seesawed back and forth. But at least now he realized the potential problem was there so that he could keep an eye on it, and Bahzell was right. It was the hradani's presence-and, of course, Tomanak's manifestation-which had not only shaken them out of their previous attitude but pushed Charrow himself into seeing a problem to which familiarity had blinded him.
"Well, then," Bahzell said, holding out his right hand, palm up. "I'm thinking that was what needed doing here, and now I've other matters to see to."
"But what in Tomanak's name is so important it can't wait until spring?" Strictly speaking, Charrow had no right to demand that information, for champions were the sole judges of where the God most needed them. He knew that, but he was also no stranger to the rigors of winter campaigning and travel.
"As to that," Bahzell said slowly, turning to stare down into the fire, "I'm not so very certain. Not as to the whole of it. But I've something to teach my folk-something himself was after going out of his way to be certain I knew, and…" He paused and looked up at Charrow, then glanced at Vaijon, as if measuring their probable reactions, before he continued. "The Dark Gods are meddling amongst my folk, Sir Charrow," he said quietly, "and I've no idea how deep the rot has spread."
"You're certain of that, Milord?" Charrow's question came out like the crack of a whip, and Vaijon stiffened in matching concern.
"Aye, that I am," Bahzell said. He grinned again, sourly this time. "I've no doubt the two of you have been ill-fortuned enough to've heard that curst song of Brandark's? The one about 'Bahzell Bloody-Hand'?" Charrow nodded slowly, and Bahzell shrugged. "Well, that bit in it about the prince with the cursed sword is after being true enough. Mind, the japester who wrote it saw fit to dress things up a bit-aye, and left out the tiny little fact that he was after facing four of the prince's guardsmen by himself at the time, and them all in the grip of the Rage-but it happened."
"Cursed how, Milord Champion?" Charrow's voice was crisp, now, with the authority of his rank, and Bahzell shrugged again.
"As to that, I'd no experience with such before himself took it into his head to be recruiting me, but he was there, as well, and when I asked him what it was, he said as how it was forged as a 'gate' to Sharna's realm." Both Charrow and Vaijon hissed at that name. "He said old Demonspawn meant it as a way to strike at me through Harnak, and there's no way in all the world Harnak could have been laying hands on such if the Dark Gods weren't meddling."
"This Harnak was heir to the Navahkan throne?" Charrow's tone made the question a statement, and Bahzell nodded. "Then 'meddling' is too weak a word, Milord," the knight-captain said grimly. "It's a classic pattern. One of the Dark Gods gets his-or her-hooks into a ruler's heir, then… disposes of the ruler so that the throne falls into his hand like a ripe plum. And of them all, Sharna is best at that maneuver. Too many people in love with power are likely to employ the Assassins Guild, never realizing the dog brothers are always as much Sharna's tool as that of whoever pays them." Charrow snorted bitterly. "For that matter, I suspect many of the dog brothers fail to realize they are. They're not among the most devout adherents of any god, and no doubt they see their relationship to Sharna's church primarily as a business opportunity. But his priesthood has always coordinated the guild's activities, and the guild has always found it convenient to have the support structure the church offers. Which means that anyone who deals with the one must also deal with the other, whether he knows it or not. And once that door is opened-"
Charrow broke off with a twitch of his shoulders, and Bahzell nodded heavily.
"Aye, I was thinking the same," he admitted. "I'm hoping they were after banking on Harnak and not working on one of his brothers at the same time. If that was their plan, then I'm thinking killing him must've set their efforts back. And from what I know of his father, they'd not have wanted to spread their net too wide, lest he realize they were about. Mind you, Churnazh of Navahk's soul is blacker than Krashnark's riding boots, and he's no giant when it comes to thinking things through. But he's not after being a complete idiot, and he'd not have lasted as long as he has without a certain cunning. I'm thinking he'd've ripped Harnak's heart out with his own hands, son or no, had he ever guessed what Harnak was about, for he knows how his allies would react to word of it."
"How would they react?" Charrow asked softly, and Bahzell turned to face him fully, brown eyes hardening as he straightened his spine.
"As to that, how would your folk be reacting?" he challenged harshly. For just a moment, his gaze and the knight-captain's locked across the office, and then Charrow raised a hand in a small gesture of apology. Bahzell glared at him for another second or two, and then his nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply.
"That's the reason I wasn't so very eager to be babbling all about it to everyone I meet," he admitted, turning to stare moodily back down into the fire. "Even now, there's too many folk too ready to believe hradani chose to serve the Dark in Kontovar, and the truth is that we did serve. Not because we'd chosen to, but because their curst wizards gave us no choice. Few enough hradani have any use for any god, Light or Dark, Sir Charrow, but there's no one in all the world has more cause to hate the Dark than my folk. Yet let a whisper of even a single hradani's having dealings with the Dark slip out, and all the old hate comes back to life against all of us, and I'll not add to that."
"No," Charrow said softly. "No, I can see that, and I ask you to forgive me. It seems that I, too, have more of the old prejudices than I'd guessed."
"Bah!" Bahzell made a sweeping, dismissive gesture and shrugged. "How many hradani had you met before Brandark and I were after washing up at your door?"
"Well… none," Charrow admitted.
"Then you'd naught to measure the stories against, now had you?"
"That's a reason for my blindness, Milord-not an excuse. But you're right, I suppose. And you're right about how most people would react to your news. Yet it's the Order's business to deal with such threats when they arise."
"And so the Order will," Bahzell reassured him. "You were the one as was telling me all champions are part of the Order, whether we like it or no, weren't you?" Charrow nodded. "Well, that being so, I'd say it's after being up to me and young Vaijon here to be dealing with it."
"Just the two of you?" Charrow couldn't quite keep his skepticism from showing, and Bahzell laughed.
"Well, the two of us, and Brandark… and forty or fifty thousand Horse Stealers."
"I thought a truce existed between your people and the Bloody Swords."
"So it does-or did before Harnak and I were after having our little disagreement. I've had no letters from my father since Brandark and I left, and it's possible the truce holds still, but I've a shrewd notion Father wasn't any too pleased when Harnak raped a girl under his father's protection and laid the blame for it on me. And even if he was minded to let that pass, there's those among his captains would never let it stand. Oh, I'll not say it's all because of me, but no one but a fool ever thought that truce would last forever, and one thing Father isn't is a fool. I'm thinking he must have had most of his preparations in place before ever Harnak and I crossed swords. And even if I'm wrong, he'll move quick enough when he hears who Harnak had dealings with."
"So he doesn't know yet," Charrow mused.
"No. I'd meant to write him, for we've no magi for the mage relays to pass word to him through, but it's likely enough I can get there as fast as any letter. And while it's happy I'll be to have his backing, you've the right of it. This is the sort of job himself had in mind for the likes of you and me, and I'll not leave my clan to fight my battles for me."
"No. No, I can see that," Charrow agreed. He lowered himself into a chair and leaned back, stretching his legs out before him while he plucked at his lower lip in thought. The slow, steady ticking of the clock on the mantel and the soft crackle of flames from the hearth were the only sounds as he pondered Bahzell's words, and then he gave a sharp nod and inhaled deeply.
"Very well, Milord Champion. You scarcely need my permission, but for what it matters, you will have my blessings. And my aid."
"Aid?" Bahzell frowned. "If you're minded to send more folk than Vaijon and Brandark along with me, it's grateful I am, but not so certain it would be wise. We've two choices once we get closer to home: we can cross the Bloody Sword lands to reach Father, or we can strike out cross-country from Daranfel to Durghazh. I'd favor the second, except that only a madman would be crossing that stretch of ground in winter if he's a choice. Still and all, it may happen we've no choice but to try it, and either road, three men will find it easier going-and easier to avoid the notice a dozen would draw."
"No doubt you're right, but that wasn't what I had in mind. Or not exactly. I would like to send an escort along with you-perhaps led by Sir Yorhus or Sir Adiskael." The master of the Belhadan Chapter smiled with cheerful nastiness. "I believe a good, brisk ride through freezing cold and blizzards might help inspire them to consider the full implications of their recent, ill-judged actions, don't you think?"
"You're a cruel and wicked man, Sir Charrow," Bahzell said with a slow, lurking smile of his own, and Charrow laughed. But then he sobered and leaned forward, raising one hand to stab a forefinger at the hradani.
"That's as may be, Milord, but an escort could be very helpful to you. For one thing, it would help avoid any… misunderstandings you and Brandark might encounter crossing the Empire. And while I realize your homeland is at least as cold as Belhadan, and I'm sure you and Lord Brandark are well acquainted with winter travel, we can provide experienced guides to see you safely on your way. How, exactly, had you planned to make your way home?"
"The hard way," Bahzell said wryly. He smiled at Charrow for a moment, then crossed to the enormous map that hung on one wall. "I'm thinking the best route is from Belhadan down through Axe Hallow," he said, tracing the roads with a finger as he spoke, "then across to Lordenfel, south to the Estoraman high road, up to Silmacha and across the Pass of Heroes to Barandir. From there, we can skirt the Wind Plain down into Daranfel, then either sneak through the Bloody Swords' back pasture or cut straight across to Durghazh and take the main road south from there to Hurgrum."
"Um." Charrow stood and walked over to join the Horse Stealer's perusal of the map. "That's a logical enough route… for someone who's picking it off a map. But I've spent some time traveling through Landria and Landfressa myself, and you'll never get through the Pass of Heroes before spring. That's almost as bad as South Wall Pass down in South Province. No, Milord. If you truly intend to make the trip at this time of year, you'll either have to go clear south to Crag Wall Pass or else bear straight north from Lordenfel to Esfresia, then cross into Dwarvenhame through Mountain Heart."
"Ah?" Bahzell rubbed his chin, and his ears shifted gently in thought.
"Exactly," Charrow said, tapping the map with his forefinger. "The bit from Esfresia to the mountains will be the worst of the entire journey, but once you reach the Dwarvenhame Tunnel, it will take you under the mountains, and from there you can pass through Golden Lode Gap into Ordanfressa and turn south to Barandir. That will take you considerably further north than you'd planned, but Golden Lode is far lower than the Pass of Heroes, and the going-especially across the mountains-will be much easier. And-" he turned from the map to regard Bahzell levelly "-I just happen to know a guide familiar with the route all the way to Mountain Heart. Ah, not to mention the fact that Sir Yorhus was raised in Landfressa and is quite an accomplished snow country traveler."
"I see." Bahzell looked back at the knight-captain for several contemplative moments, then chuckled. "I'll not take 'em any further than Daranfel, Sir Charrow, but you're one as drives a hard bargain. As long as they're all ready to be taking orders from a hradani champion of Tomanak , they'll be welcome to come along that far."
"I thought you'd see it my way, Milord," Sir Charrow murmured, and he smiled.