The first portion of their journey was less arduous than Sir Charrow had predicted or Bahzell had expected. The skies had cleared, and their worst problem was the eye-gnawing sunlight reflected from the snowfields. Fortunately, all of them knew the danger of snow blindness, and the Axemen had better ways of dealing with it than Brandark's and Bahzell's people did. Instead of the layers of cloth in which the northern hradani swathed their eyes, the reindeer herders of Vonderland, Windfel, and Landfressa used lenses of tinted glass to reduce the glare to manageable proportions.
Bahzell approved wholeheartedly of the innovation. Snow lenses weren't cheap-even dwarves found the manufacture of unflawed, uniformly tinted glass an expensive proposition-and adjusting the goggles in which they were mounted for an exact fit could be difficult. But their only real drawback was that they tended to fog up under certain circumstances, and he could live with that. Especially since the problem was worst when the temperature was lowest, and the temperature (during the day) had actually risen above freezing and stayed there for most of the first week. That was a blessing Bahzell had not anticipated, and the quality of the Empire's roads was another.
Even a barbarian Horse Stealer had heard of Axeman engineers and their mighty projects, but those tales had sounded so unlikely that Bahzell's people tended to put them down as the sorts of wild exaggerations city slickers spread among their credulous country cousins. Bahzell might have been less scornful than some, but neither he nor Brandark were the least prepared for the reality of the royal and imperial high roads. Bahzell supposed they should have been, given the pithy comments Kilthandahknarthas' wagoneers had made about the highways beyond the East Wall Mountains. Some of those roads had seemed like marvels of engineering to him and Brandark, but now he knew why the wagoneers had been so critical, and even with the reality underfoot, he found it hard to believe in. Not even Belhadan had prepared him, for Belhadan, after all, was a city. It sat in one place, a focal point of effort. Roads were something else, for they fanned out in all directions, and the sheer length of them made even a fairly modest highway a greater project than the mightiest city wall ever raised.
But "modest" was a word no one would ever apply to any royal and imperial high road. The one from Belhadan to Axe Hallow, for example, was sixty feet wide and paved with smoothly leveled stone slabs. The hugest freight wagons could easily pass one another, and the roadbed's arrogant straightness bent around only the most intractable obstacles. Clearly, its builders had known precisely where they wanted to go, and they had cut sunken rights of way through the very hearts of hills rather than curl around them or accept slopes whose steepness would have exhausted draft animals.
Yet even as he admired the way in which the Empire's roads served the needs of freight haulers, Bahzell knew any civilian advantages were secondary to the real reason they had been built. The Empire's freight traffic was important, but those roads were built for men on foot, not wagons or the horsemen who used the Empire of the Spear's highways. They were bordered on either side by broad, firm stretches of turf which were clearly intended to spare the hooves of rapidly moving horses the pounding a stone surface would have given them, but their hard-paved centers were meant for the boots of marching men, for the Royal and Imperial Army's true strength was its superb infantry. No one else in Norfressa could match that infantry's quality, and roads such as this provided it with unequaled mobility. The men of the royal and imperial infantry called themselves "the King-Emperor's mules" with a pride as genuine as it was wry. Their peacetime training included regular marches of forty miles a day, in full kit, and they had repeatedly proven their ability to march almost any cavalry in the world into the ground.
Especially along roads like these. The Belhadan-Axe Hallow high road was almost a thousand years old. The bridges over the many streams and minor rivers it crossed wore thick moss over their ancient stones, and the bordering firs which had been planted as windbreaks had grown into giants four and five feet thick. Yet for all its age, it had none of the potholes and mired stretches, even now, in the middle of winter, that Bahzell and Brandark had encountered elsewhere. The Empire was a prosperous land, and villages and towns-the latter large enough to count as small cities in most realms-were threaded along the highway like beads on a string. The farmland which supported communities of such size obviously must be rich, yet as Bahzell counted the houses and observed the smoke curling up from chimneys and the healthy, well-fed citizens who watched their party move by, he realized Axeman farmers must know a thing or two his people didn't. Even allowing for the ability of the Empire's transportation system to ship in food, no hradani farmers could have fed so many mouths off so little land.
But these people managed it, and he made a mental note to suggest that his father see about importing a few Axeman farming experts. It was a point worth bearing in mind, and so was the way in which the local communities kept the high road cleared of snow in their vicinities. Yet Bahzell also had to admit that clear skies, sun, and the quality of the roads were only a partial explanation for the ease of the journey's early stages. Sir Charrow had provided rather more support than he had wanted, but he wasn't about to complain after he saw it all in action.
Sir Yorhus commanded the escort, and he clearly intended to wash away any stigma of his previous resentment of hradani champions. He was almost oppressively attentive, and his constant, pestering search for things he might do for Bahzell and Brandark's comfort had threatened to drive the rest of the escort mad for the first day or so. After that, however, he had calmed down-less, Bahzell was sure, because he felt he had sufficiently expiated his original attitude than because, for all his potential zealotry, he was a wise enough commander to leave others to attend to the business they knew at least as well as he did.
And they did know their business. Sir Charrow had provided two capacious wagons, drawn by teams of Vonderland reindeer completely at home in ice and snow, and the wagons-like those of Kilthan's merchant caravan-had wheels rimmed not with iron but with some thick, flexible substance. One of Kilthan's wagoneers had told Bahzell the material came from the distant jungles of southeastern Norfressa, although he'd been a bit vague about just whom the dwarves dealt with to obtain it. Wherever it came from, however, it certainly made for a far smoother ride than the grating of iron-shod wheels would have, and so did the fat metal cylinders-the "shock absorbers," as one of Kilthan's wheelwrights had called them-and steel leaf springs which had replaced the leather or rope slings a hradani wagon would have been fortunate to boast.
Yet these wagons, unlike Kilthan's, were intended for winter use, and each was provided with a set of sled runners, as well, carried in long racks along its sides. Practiced drovers like those Sir Charrow had provided could mount the runners and strike the wheels in no more than an hour, and while there had been no need to do any such thing so far, Bahzell could appreciate the advantage the runners would offer under less salubrious conditions. The winter daylight was brief enough to limit them to no more than thirty miles or so a day even with such wagons, but that was far better than Bahzell would have dared to predict before setting out.
Nor had the Order skimped on their other supplies. Aside from their inability to find a horse up to Bahzell's weight-which, he admitted cheerfully, no one could have done-the Order's quartermasters had provided anything he could have thought to ask for and more. In addition to grain and fodder for the reindeer and horses, there were down-lined Vonderland sleep sacks (a marvelous innovation whose worth, Brandark had loudly announced, exceeded that of any "shock absorber" ever invented), snowshoes, heavy winter tents, coal oil heaters and the fuel to feed them, rations, and even the cross-country skis Bahzell and Brandark had requested. Better yet, from Brandark's perspective, at least, the wagons provided space for the entire collection of books he had assembled in Belhadan. Tents were nice, but the ability to haul his loot home was even nicer. Still, it seemed unnatural to spend nights in such comfort, and the five knights and twenty lay-brothers Sir Charrow had added (no doubt, Bahzell thought wryly, to sufficiently impress his own importance upon any anti-hradani bigot they happened to meet), provided a degree of security the two hradani had not experienced since leaving Kilthan's employ the previous autumn.
All in all, Bahzell decided, he could become accustomed to such coddling. It wasn't something he intended to mention to Brandark, who luxuriated shamelessly in it already, yet he knew it was true, and that was one reason he insisted on working out regularly. The daylight was too short to waste, but even the best wagon was slower than a mounted man-or a Horse Stealer on foot-which meant he could train for an hour or so each morning and still easily overtake the rest of the party by midday.
The first day, he and Brandark had worked out together while Sir Yorhus, Vaijon, and two other knights kept watch, but that hadn't lasted long. The next morning, Vaijon had respectfully reminded Bahzell of his promise to complete his training, and Sir Harkon, the senior knight-companion and Yorhus' second in command, had asked if he might spar with Brandark, as well. By the third day, all the knights and two of the senior lay-brothers had arranged to take the duty of "guarding" Lord Bahzell in rotation while he worked out so that all of them could get in their own drill time. He wasn't really surprised, given that they were members of a martial order. That sort of training had been an everyday part of their lives for years, and they knew how serious the need to stay in training was. It was also a way to break up the monotony of the journey-and no matter how well equipped they might be, any winter journey was always a dreary proposition.
Yet there was another aspect, as well, one Bahzell was slow to recognize, for he remained unaccustomed to thinking of himself as special. But he was special to these men. He was a gods-touched champion of the Light, one their own God had personally appeared to claim as His own in front of them. Whatever he might want, however he might try to change it, he could never be anything else to them, and so they hungered to test themselves against him and so touch the edge of godhood, however indirectly.
And when he finally did realize what was happening, he certainly did try to change it. He didn't want to be a gods-touched champion, and his stubborn refusal to fall down and worship anyone else made him acutely uncomfortable when someone else tried to do that to him. Nor did it help that Yorhus was the worst of the lot. As Bahzell had unkindly observed to Charrow, the knight-commander had the makings of a good fanatic. Not because he was inherently evil or arrogant, but because he believed so strongly… and tended to substitute faith for reason in a way that made Bahzell's skin crawl. The Horse Stealer remembered the night Tomanak had told him it was his very stubbornness-his refusal to do anything he had not decided was right-which had made him a champion. He hadn't understood that at the time; now, looking at Yorhus, he did.
At first, he'd thought it was part of his job to change Yorhus, to somehow make a little of his own obstinate individualism rub off on the knight-commander. With that in mind, he'd invited Yorhus to spar with him in the hopes that a drubbing like the one he'd given Vaijon (although somewhat less drastic) might batter through the older knight's mental armor. But he quickly discovered that it was an effort doomed to fail, for Yorhus lacked something Vaijon had. Bahzell couldn't put his finger on exactly what that something was. He had a suspicion, but it remained too vague for positive conclusions, and whatever it was, Yorhus obviously didn't have it. He also lacked the old Vaijon's egotism, for there was not an arrogant bone in his body. His problem wasn't that he valued his judgment above that of others or looked down on those who fell short of his own accomplishments, or birth, or skill at arms. It grew, in fact, out of his sense of humility. He was utterly prepared to submit to Tomanak's will in every way. In fact, he needed to submit to Tomanak's will, and that was the heart of his problem.
When Tomanak failed to give him direct orders, he had to decide for himself what those orders ought to have been, and once he'd decided what his orders were, they had the imprimatur of Tomanak's Own Writ as far as he was concerned. He adhered to them with unflinching, iron determination… and expected all about him to do the same. The possibility that he might be mistaken in what he thought Tomanak wanted of him seldom so much as crossed his mind, for if he were mistaken, then surely Tomanak would tell him so. In fact, Tomanak had told him so in Bahzell's case, and the man was desperate to expiate his "sins." Yet Bahzell felt unhappily certain that once Yorhus had shown his contrition and-in his own eyes-squared his account for current errors, he would go back to all his old, ardent intolerance. Oh, he would never repeat the same mistakes, but doing penance for them actually seemed to strengthen the habits of thought which had produced his errors in the first place.
Unfortunately, a taste for blind faith wasn't something Bahzell could knock out of a man in a training bout. It was more a matter of figuring out how to knock a dose of self-skepticism into him, and that was a task for which Bahzell was ill fitted. Never a patient man, he was far better suited to dealing with problems which could be solved by taking things apart-usually with a certain degree of forcefulness-before putting the bits and pieces back together the way they were supposed to fit. Yorhus was a different kind of task, and Bahzell had no idea how to go about building qualities he lacked-and obviously saw no pressing need to acquire-into him.
If Bahzell found Yorhus difficult to deal with, Brandark found him almost impossible. The Bloody Sword could no more survive without needling those about him than he could without air, but the serious, literal-minded knight-commander was utterly incapable of seeing what struck Brandark as humorous in a witticism or a song or a joke. He tried-in fact, his efforts to understand were enough to drive the Bloody Sword to drink-but he simply couldn't do it, and Bahzell considered himself lucky Brandark had decided to be tactful and avoid conversations with Yorhus as much as he possibly could.
But that got Bahzell no closer to solving his own problem. Sir Adiskael was back in Belhadan, where Sir Charrow no doubt had his own ideas about how best to deal with zealotry, but Yorhus was clearly Bahzell's job, and he had no idea how to do it.
"Excuse me, Milord, but I couldn't help noticing that you have something on your mind. Is it anything I can help with?"
Bahzell looked up from his strong, steaming cup of midday tea. They were six days out of Belhadan, no more than another day or two from Axe Hallow, and there'd been a surprising amount of traffic, despite the season, as they neared the royal and imperial capital. Some of those they met had gawked at Bahzell and Brandark when they recognized them as hradani, and one or two had actually shrunk away. Compared to the welcome (or lack thereof) they'd received in other lands, that was the equivalent of a warm and hearty greeting, which probably owed a good deal to the fact that they were accompanied by two dozen armed members of the Order of Tomanak and that Bahzell himself wore the Order's colors. Sir Yorhus, unfortunately, didn't see it that way, and he'd spent most of the morning glaring at those he suspected of harboring disrespectful thoughts where Bahzell was concerned.
"And what makes you think I've something on my mind?" the hradani asked with the air of a man sparring for time, and Vaijon shrugged.
"My father may have raised me to be arrogant, Milord; he didn't raise me to be stupid, however I may have acted in the past. I've come to know you well enough to realize when something is bothering you. Even if I hadn't, Lord Brandark certainly does, and he's been avoiding you most of the morning."
"He has, has he?" Bahzell grinned wryly. "Well, then, perhaps I've something to be grateful for after all."
Vaijon smiled back, but he also shook his head.
"Give you another hour or two and you'll miss him enough to go deliberately offer him an opening, Milord, and he knows it." Bahzell eyed the young knight sharply, surprised by the acuity of that remark. "And he isn't avoiding you because he thinks you'll bite his head off. He's staying away to give you time to chew on whatever you've been thinking about so hard all morning."
"Ah?" Bahzell cocked his ears inquiringly, and Vaijon shrugged again.
"In case you hadn't noticed, Milord," he said with just a hint of asperity, "everyone's avoiding you. That's why I decided to bring this whole thing-whatever it is we're talking about-up. I wanted to be certain sheer disuse of your tongue didn't cause you to forget how to speak."
"I'm thinking as how you've been spending entirely too much time with Brandark, my lad," Bahzell said with a slow grin, and Vaijon chuckled. His blue eyes sparkled with pleasure, and the hradani shook his head, trying to imagine anything less like the Vaijon he'd first met than this personable youngster. But then his grin faded as the changes in Vaijon underlined his inability to encourage any similar change in Yorhus, and he sighed.
"Something is bothering you, isn't it, Milord?" Vaijon asked in a softer, more serious voice, and Bahzell nodded.
"Aye, lad." The hradani paused for another moment, trying to decide how best to explain, then twitched his ears. "It's Yorhus," he sighed. "Mind you, I'd not say a word against his honesty or courage. Indeed, I'm thinking as that's the heart of the problem. He's one as goes forward full tilt when he's sure he's right… or spares no pains to admit his errors when his nose is rubbed deep enough in them. But that's the problem, d'you see? Wrong or right, he's always after being sure, with never a bit of give in him until someone rubs his nose in it, and questions never bother his head at all, at all."
Bahzell paused, cocking one eyebrow and both ears at Vaijon, and the younger man nodded slowly.
"I know," he said, and his eyes fell briefly. "It never bothered me before you were so kind as to break my arms rather than my head, but he's not very… flexible, is he?"
"A bit of the pot and the kettle in that, I'm thinking," Bahzell observed with a smile, and Vaijon chuckled in wry acknowledgment. Then he sobered.
"But not for the same reasons, Milord. I was too full of myself to listen, but Yorhus isn't like that. In most ways, he's one of the humblest knights I know. It's just that… that-"
"It's just that too much humility is after being the worst kind of arrogance," Bahzell said quietly, and saw understanding flicker in the blue eyes which rose suddenly to meet his once more. "You're right. I'm thinking he's a good enough man underneath it all, but I'm wishing he could've met Tothas." Vaijon looked a question at him, and he shrugged. "A Spearman I know, Lady Zarantha's personal armsman. He follows Tomanak , and a better man-or a more understanding one-I've never met. He offered me some advice one night that was better than even he guessed, and it's in my mind that if anyone would be having the patience or wit to straighten Yorhus out, Tothas would."
"Then send Yorhus to him," Vaijon suggested. Bahzell looked at him sharply, for the younger man's voice was completely serious, as if he'd just made the most reasonable suggestion in the world.
"I don't think I was after hearing that correctly," the hradani said after a moment. "Would you be so very kind as to repeat it?"
"I only suggested you send Yorhus to this Tothas." Vaijon sounded perplexed, as if Bahzell's apparent confusion puzzled him. "If you think he could get through to Yorhus in a way you can't, then why not send Yorhus to him, Milord?"
"Why not?" Bahzell sat back, cradling the warmth of his mug between his chilled hands, and cocked his ears sardonically. "Why, aside from the tiny fact that Tothas is after being a good thousand leagues from here, all of them covered in snow, and a Spearman in the middle of an entire empire of Spearmen who aren't over fond of Axemen that I've noticed, and that Yorhus is after being assigned to a chapter house in Belhadan and under Sir Charrow's orders, not mine- Why, aside from all that, there's not a reason in the world that I can see why I shouldn't be sending him off to the ends of the earth in hopes a man as doesn't even know he's coming can sort him out if ever he gets there."
"With all due respect, Milord, none of that matters," Vaijon said, and smiled crookedly as Bahzell's ears flattened in disbelief. "If you'd stayed a little longer in Belhadan and let Sir Charrow finish explaining things, you'd know that without my telling you."
"I was there when Sir Charrow told you there are only eighteen living champions in all of Norfressa. Only eighteen, Milord. Aside from Sir Terrian, no member of the Order can so much as dispute any order one of you chooses to give, and not even Sir Terrian could disobey you except on Tomanak's direct authority. If you feel Sir Yorhus could benefit from being sent to your friend Tothas-or anywhere else in the world-you have the authority to send him there without consulting Sir Charrow or anyone else."
Bahzell blinked, and a shiver which owed nothing to winter weather ran through him. The thought of such authority was terrifying, for with it came responsibility… and the temptation to tyranny. The idea that his will, however capricious, could send a man across a thousand leagues of bitter winter snow and ice made his stomach knot, and he wondered what insanity had possessed the Order of Tomanak to put that kind of power into anyone's hands.
"Well," a familiar, earthquake-deep voice said soundlessly in the back of his brain, "I suppose they did it because I told them to."
Vaijon sucked in a sudden, deep breath and went white as the snow around them, and Bahzell blinked again as he realized the knight-probationer had also heard Tomanak's silent voice. There was undoubtedly a reason for that, but at the moment, the sudden revelation of his own authority was the first weight on Bahzell's mind, and he set his mug aside and leaned aggressively forward, bracing his hands on his knees as he glowered at the empty air.
"You did, did you?" he said tartly. "And just what maggoty-brained reason were you having for that?"
Bahzell wouldn't have believed Vaijon could turn any whiter, but the knight-probationer managed. Tomanak , on the other hand, only chuckled.
"Mine is a military order, Bahzell, and any army needs officers to command it. For the most part, the Order chooses its own officers-like Sir Terrian and Sir Charrow-and those choices serve it well. But it is my order, and I reserve to myself the right to select my own officers and place them in authority over it. As I have chosen you."
"And never a word did you say to me about it while you were after choosing me, either!" Bahzell pointed out.
"Of course not. If you'd asked, I would have told you the truth, of course. But you didn't, and I was just as glad of it. If I had told you, you would have raised even more objections, and recruiting a boulder-brained hradani was hard enough without that!"
Vaijon uttered a strangled sound and made as if to rise, but Bahzell waved him back down. The younger man settled back on the saddle bags he was using for a seat, and the hradani returned his attention to his deity.
"It may be I would have, and it may be I wouldn't," he said, "but that's neither here nor there just this moment. What's in my mind is that I'm none too happy to think such as me could be sending a man I hardly know to what might be his death on a whim!"
"Bahzell, Bahzell! You can be the most stubborn, infuriating, obstinate-" The god chopped himself off, then sighed. "Bahzell, would you give authority to an officer you expected to use it capriciously and carelessly?"
The hradani shook his head.
"Then what in the names of all the Powers of Light makes you think I would?"
The question was a sudden peal of thunder, reverberating with such soundless violence between Bahzell's ears that his eyes glazed. It was obvious from Vaijon's expression that he'd heard the same question, although Bahzell felt certain he'd heard it at a lower volume. His eyes weren't crossed, after all.
That was when Bahzell realized Tomanak had withdrawn with as little warning as he had arrived, and the hradani's lips quirked. He hadn't considered the question from Tomanak's viewpoint, but he supposed it did make sense, after a fashion. Bahzell wasn't about to award himself any accolades for infallibility, and he was only too well aware of his own myriad shortcomings. But he also had to admit that the casual abuse of power had never appealed to him, and if he knew that, how could Tomanak not know it? Still, the god hadn't said a word about whether or not Bahzell would use his newly discovered authority wisely, only that he wouldn't use it carelessly… which left the responsibility squarely in Bahzell's hands. And that, too, he realized now, was a part of the measure of a champion's duties. It was his job to decide whether he was right or wrong. Tomanak might offer guidance, but as he'd told Bahzell on another snowy afternoon, it was the exercise of his champions' wills and courage which made them champions. It was simply that Bahzell hadn't thought about the particular sort of courage it took to assume the authority Tomanak had just confirmed was his.
"Well!" he said finally, explosively, and slapped his palms on his thighs. The loud smacking sound made Vaijon jump, and Bahzell grinned. "Heard him yourself, did you?"
"Ah, well- I mean, that is-" Vaijon stopped and swallowed. "Yes, Milord. I-I suppose I did."
"Ah, well himself can be a mite testy from time to time," Bahzell said blandly, then laughed out loud and leaned over to clap Vaijon on the shoulder as the younger man stared at him. "I'm not so very certain just why he was wanting you to be hearing-not yet-but you can lay to it that he had a reason. In the meantime, though, I'm thinking perhaps I should be giving your suggestion some thought."
"My suggestion, Milord?"
"Aye, the one about Yorhus and Tothas. It just might be there's some merit in that, after all."