The good weather deserted them on the morning of the day Axe Hallow should have come into sight.
Even the high road had begun to twist and turn as it threaded through the Axe Blade Hills which surrounded the Empire's capital like a huge, natural breastwork. In any other land, the hills might have been called "mountains," but the towering East Walls which formed the Empire's eastern rampart denied Axeman geographers the use of that word to describe any lesser peaks. Bahzell, on the other hand, had found himself using it in his own thoughts without reservation as he marched into an icy, cutting breeze and the scattered snowflakes which had begun to turn into something else shortly after dawn. Now it was late morning, and he gritted his teeth as what looked suspiciously like the early stages of a blizzard blew down a rocky cut, straight into his eyes. Bitter as that wind was, he had experienced worse coming down off the Sothoii Wind Plain. It was only the unnaturally easy going of the last week which made it seem like the very breath of ice demons. Not that understanding the why of it made it any more pleasant… and not that it wouldn't prove quite sufficient to kill any unwary traveler if it got much worse.
The sudden abatement that morning of the traffic they had been encountering as they neared the capital should have warned him something like this was coming, he thought grimly. No doubt the locals, accustomed to the weather in these parts, had exercised the good judgment to stay home. They'd probably advised any travelers who'd had the sense to ask to do the same, but Bahzell's eagerness to reach Axe Hallow had pushed the pace harder than usual yesterday. He hadn't wanted to stop when they reached the last town with a good two hours of daylight left, and the result had been to leave them camped beside the road rather than sheltered in a hospitable inn whose landlord undoubtedly would have warned them against venturing out today. And knowing that didn't make things any more enjoyable, either.
He looked around and grimaced. Once upon a time, he'd wasted very little thought on gods of any persuasion. All he'd asked was for them to leave him alone, in return for which, he'd agreed to leave them alone, without nattering at them whenever things looked a little unpleasant. But his attitudes had changed a bit lately, and he considered praying for the weather to pass them by. Unfortunately, Tomanak wasn't in charge of weather; his sister Chemalka was, and she paid very little heed to the importuning of mortals, assuming she even heard them. The Lady of the Storm did as she chose, when she chose, and it was obvious she was about to choose to drop several feet of snow on one Bahzell Bahnakson's head.
Even more unfortunately, there would be no more inns between here and Axe Hallow, for there was no place to put them. The western approach to the capital was worse going than any of the others, and the stark slopes of the "hills" were the next best thing to perpendicular. The high road wound back and forth as it climbed them like a stony serpent, yet not even that concession could make the repeated ascents anything but a long, exhausting haul, and there certainly weren't any flat places for people to live on.
From the maps, most of the towns and villages near the capital were located to Axe Hallow's east and southeast, where the Kormak River flowed out and down to reach the Greenleaf. Bahzell would have chosen to locate in the same place, given a choice between these barren hillsides and a sheltered river valley, but he could certainly see how Kormak III's councilors had convinced him to locate his new capital here eight hundred years ago. The Kormak Valley was the only true breach in the natural fortress of the hills. Tiny blocking forces could hold the strongest invading army along any of the capital's approaches, and Kormak's dynasty were dwarves, who probably found the terrain comfortingly homey.
Bahzell did not. He didn't mind mountains as such, but these barren, snow choked hills seemed to close in on him, making him feel simultaneously exposed and trapped even when no blizzard was howling through them. His fellow travelers seemed as miserable as he felt, but not one of them had complained about the way his decision to push on yesterday had left them no choice but to continue onward now. Which, since the party included Brandark, probably meant they simply hadn't reasoned it all out… yet. He spared a moment to hope things would stay that way, wrapped the thick Sothoii-style poncho more tightly about him, and stumped onward into the wind and gathering snow.
One good thing, he reflected wryly, was that none of his companions cared to complain about whatever pace a man on foot set. The knights and lay-brothers remained uncomfortable at having their commander walk while they rode. They understood horses simply didn't come in the right size for someone seven and a half feet tall, and they probably felt a bit like children cantering along on their ponies beside an adult on foot, but it still seemed profoundly unnatural to them… which was solely because they were so unfamiliar with hradani in general and Horse Stealers in particular. It never crossed their minds that they were far more likely to slow him than vice versa, for they didn't realize he could have run their horses into a state of foundered collapse. Brandark did, but he took it so much for granted that it never occurred to him to mention it, and given the weather, Bahzell was prepared to take shameless advantage of the others' ignorance to push them still harder. The last milestone had shown them only thirteen miles from Axe Hallow, and he wanted the lot of them under shelter before the real storm hit.
He topped out on another rise and turned his back to the wind long enough to look behind him. Fresh snow coated the pavement in a thin, slippery skim of white. The reindeer seemed unperturbed, but the wagoneers looked a little anxious, and the mounted men had moved their horses onto the better footing offered by the turf beside the road proper. At least snow wasn't ice, Bahzell told himself philosophically as he turned to peer back into the wind once more. Or not yet, at least.
From everything he'd ever heard of Axe Hallow, the watchtowers on the hilltops above it ought to be visible by now, but the flying snow reduced visibility badly, and he shrugged. They'd reach the city when they reached it; in the meantime, he had more pressing concerns, and he slapped his mittened hands together in a vain effort to make his fingers feel warmer as he started forward once more.
By late afternoon, there was no longer any question about how the weather might best be described. The day had degenerated into a howling gale, and their pace had slowed even more. The road's steepness would have made every mile feel like two even without the blizzard; with it, the thirteen miles Bahzell had expected to cover in two or three hours had eaten up every remaining scrap of putative daylight, and he was beginning to consider stopping right where they were.
It was not an appealing decision. The road passed through a series of narrow cuts bare of anything remotely like a windbreak. If they must, they could turn the wagons broadside to the wind and use them for cover, and their felted tents and sleeping sacks would keep them from freezing to death. But that wasn't the same as keeping them warm, and he didn't care for the feel of the wind. It had been icy all day; now the temperature had begun a dangerous plummet to sub-zero levels, and with no better cover than was offered here, they could easily lose half their horses on a night like the one they plainly faced.
He swore to himself, pounding his fists together and peering vainly into the snow. None of his companions knew precisely where they were, and even Sir Yorhus, who'd made this trip many times, had lost his bearings. The milestones had long since vanished as the snow and wind closed in, and Bahzell snarled. For all he knew, they could be within a hundred yards of the city… but they might not be, too, and he had to make a decision soon. They couldn't stumble on indefinitely, always hoping the capital was just ahead. Sooner or later a horse would lose its footing and go down, or frostbite would claim someone's fingers or toes-or worse. But if Axe Hallow was close at hand, it promised walls and roofs and fires.
He was about to give up and order his followers to make camp when he realized someone-or something-was coming. It was more sensed than seen, a darker blot in the gale-lashed dark, and he frowned and raised one hand, trying vainly to shield his eyes in an effort to see better. It was useless at first, but then he stiffened as a single horseman emerged from the wall of snow and came trotting straight towards him.
"Well, well! Here you are!"
The white-bearded rider's cheerful voice should have been torn to shreds in the heart of the blizzard, but it carried with absolute, unnatural clarity. The Sothoii warhorse under him was worth a prince's ransom, but nothing else about him suggested any particular wealth or rank. Like Bahzell, he wore a plain Sothoii-style poncho over equally plain-and warm-woolens and leather, and the scabbard of his longsword was of unadorned, scuffed leather. He pushed back the hood of his poncho with mittened hands, exposing the gay stripes of a red-and-white knitted woolen cap that looked absurdly out of place amid the blowing snow and ice, and grinned, and Bahzell planted his fists on his hips and glowered at him.
"I'm getting just a mite tired of the weather you carry about with you, wizard," he growled.
"I had nothing to do with it," the mounted man told him virtuously, then leaned sideways in the saddle to clasp forearms with him.
"Ha!" Bahzell replied, surveying the newcomer with obvious disbelief. The old man looked back with what was probably an expression of artful innocence, but it was hard to be sure without seeing his eyes, and no one had seen Wencit of Rum's eyes in well over a millennium. The glowing witchfire which had replaced them when the wild magic came upon him danced and flickered under his craggy brows, and he chuckled.
"You have my word, Bahzell," he said. "Not even a wild wizard meddles with the weather. Besides, if I were going to adjust conditions, I can think of far more pleasant things than snow and ice!"
"I suppose," Bahzell agreed grudgingly and turned his head as Brandark urged his horse up beside him. "Look what the wind's blown in… again," he said sourly.
"You really have to work on the way you speak about ancient and powerful masters of arcane lore," Brandark told him severely, then held out his own hand to the wizard. "Hello, you old horse thief!" he said in genial tones. "Fancy meeting you here."
"Remind me to do something nasty to both of you," Wencit replied. "But not right now. Why don't we get the lot of you inside so you can at least be warm when it happens?"
"That," Brandark said with feeling, "sounds like an excellent idea. Of course," he went on in a more wary tone, eyes narrowing as he considered the wizard, "the last time we ran into you in a blizzard, there were forty or fifty dog brothers and a pair of dark wizards-one of them a priest of Carnadosa, as I recall-camped out in the middle of it. I trust you're not here to reprise that performance?"
"No, no!" Wencit assured him with another grin. "I happened to be in Axe Hallow on business of my own-business which, I'm sure you'll be relieved to know, had nothing at all to do with either of you-when this little squall blew in. Since you hadn't turned up before dark fell, I thought I should come looking for you, that's all."
" 'All,' is it?" Bahzell murmured. He studied the old man thoughtfully, but Wencit only grinned more broadly, and the hradani decided to let it drop. Wencit of Rum was a law unto himself, and Bahzell no more believed he'd just "happened" to be in Axe Hallow than he did that the sun would rise in the west tomorrow morning. On the other hand, he'd had ample opportunity even in the brief time he and Brandark had spent working with the old man to rescue Lady Zarantha to realize Wencit would tell him as much as he wanted him to know and no more. Bahzell would have expected that to infuriate him, given the traditional hradani attitude that the only good wizard was a dead one and his own lack of patience, but somehow it didn't. He supposed that could be because if anyone had ever earned the right to be mysterious, Wencit was certainly that anyone. Only four white wizards had survived the Fall of Kontovar. One of them had been driven quite mad, and two more had been permanently drained by the White Council's desperate, self-immolating counterstrike against the Lords of Carnadosa. Only Wencit had survived with his power intact to protect the exodus to Norfressa by the last, decimated wave of the Fall's survivors, and he was probably the only reason anyone had survived to flee. Under the circumstances, he was entitled to a few quirks.
"Well," the Horse Stealer said after a moment in tones of elaborate patience, "you're the one as knows just how far we are from the blasted city, Wencit. So if it's no bother, I'm thinking it would be a kindly thing for you to stop sitting on your arse and show the rest of us. In a manner of speaking, of course."
"Oh, of course!" Wencit chuckled, and turned his horse back the way he'd come. "If you'll just follow me," he invited. "And do try not to get lost."
In fact, they'd been barely half a mile from the city's western gate when Wencit found them, and Bahzell didn't know whether to be grateful that they'd had so short a distance left to go or disgusted that he'd been prepared to spend a miserable, icy night that close to the shelter he'd been unable to see. He decided to settle for gratitude, and craned his neck back to stare up at Axe Hallow's walls as the party approached them.
Since its founding, the capital had expanded mainly to the south and east, where there was room for homes and businesses and merchants could take advantage of the Kormak River and its canal system. The successive rulers who had made Axe Hallow the greatest city in Norfressa had insisted that the fortifications must be expanded to cover each outward bound of the city limits, however great the expense, and the expansion had gradually replaced all the other original gates. Only West Gate remained, but there was nothing at all wrong with it, despite its age. The outer wall stood more than tall enough for its battlements to vanish into the wind-blown snow, and massive, hexagonal towers flanked the gate itself. Under normal conditions, the dark stonework must look harsh and forbidding; tonight, the warm yellow light spilling out of West Gate's cavernous gullet and the towers' arrow slits promised a welcoming oasis, and Bahzell heard Vaijon's horse whinny in relief as they headed for it.
The gate was fully manned, blizzard or no, and the Horse Stealer studied the guard detail closely. The sentries looked half frozen, but they examined the travelers alertly, and though there was no challenge-probably because of Wencit's presence, Bahzell decided as he watched the wizard nod to an officer in passing-the guards clearly knew their business. And well they should, for these were troopers from the Royal and Imperial Army, not regular city guardsmen.
The sentries looked back at him and Brandark with equal curiosity, and he wondered what these Axemen made of them. The Empire's borders had no direct contact with any hradani land, but defensive treaties with the Border Kingdoms along its frontiers had brought its army into occasional contact with hradani brigands, raiders, and even one or two armies of invasion over the centuries. Bahzell had never personally faced Axemen in battle, but he'd talked to grizzled veterans who had, and they'd always spoken of the Royal and Imperial Army with profound respect, even fear. Given their choice, they probably would have preferred facing Axemen to a charge of Sothoii windriders, but it would have been a very close thing.
No other infantry in the world could match the army of King Emperor Kormak. Even before the annexation of Dwarvenhame in the middle of the last century, a quarter of the Empire's population had been dwarvish. The rest of its people were predominately human, but it had a healthy leavening of all the races (except, of course, hradani), and the unprecedented intermixing-and marriage-among the various Races of Man which had stemmed from the Kingdom of the Axe's status as the main port of refuge for Kontovar's escapees continued to hold true for the Empire. Compared to the Sothoii, the humans with whom Bahzell was most familiar, most humans in the Empire were relatively short. There were obviously exceptions, like Vaijon, but few of them would have been at all happy at the thought of engaging hradani-sized enemies on a one-to-one basis.
That was why the Royal and Imperial Army did its best to see to it that its personnel never had to do something like that. It was hardly surprising that the Army was infantry-oriented, given the Empire's strong dwarvish component. Yet even though the Axe Brothers-the elite bodyguard and personal retainers of the King-Emperor-took their name from the great daggered axes they wielded in battle, that traditional dwarvish (and Horse Stealer) weapon was restricted solely to their ranks. Dwarvish axemen had always been fearsome opponents, but the army which had been built by the hard-bitten professionals of the Royal and Imperial officer corps, most of them graduates of the Emperor Torren Military Academy right here in Axe Hallow, was even more frightening.
Bahzell's father had always insisted no organized force was ever outnumbered by a disorganized one, regardless of the numbers, and the fact that he'd managed-finally-to hammer that axiom through the skulls of his Horse Stealers accounted for their ability to crush Bloody Sword forces which had often enjoyed a numerical advantage of two to one or even more. Yet Bahzell nursed no illusions. For all of his father's reforms, an Axemen army would have smashed Prince Bahnak's alliance as easily as he had defeated Navahk and her allies.
The Empire's infantry were exhaustively drilled in the sort of formation fighting alien to "barbarians" (like traditional hradani warriors) who insisted on fighting as individuals. Even among Prince Bahnak's troops, that fundamental individualism persisted on an almost instinctive level which only harsh training and harsher discipline could counter. But no Axeman infantryman thought of himself that way; all of his training focused on the need to fight as a member of a mutually supporting team carefully organized to maximize the effectiveness of its members.
The Axemen's primary maneuver unit was the thousand-man strong battalion. Composed of ten hundred-man companies, each of ten ten-man squads, it formed the heart of the tactical formation known as a "torren," after the Kontovaran Emperor, who had formalized it. The two or three battle lines of a torren resembled nothing so much as a huge chessboard built out of blocks of infantry, each of whom left a gap between itself and the units on either side of it which was exactly the width of its own frontage. The line behind it was arranged in the same formation… but offset so that each of its units was immediately behind one of the gaps in the first line. The torren could be adopted by units from battalions down to the squad level. In fact, it was most common for a battalion to break down into company-sized blocks, but size as such hardly mattered, for that apparently simple formation was the secret of the Army's success. It was also, as Prince Bahnak had discovered when he began evolving his own tactics for his Horse Stealers, much less simple than it seemed, and only superbly trained troops could make it work.
For those who could employ it, the torren provided unparalleled battlefield mobility. Its square blocks could march in any direction equally well simply by changing facing, and the gaps in each line allowed units to fall back under pressure, knowing there would always be friendly units ready to cover its flanks. Or the front line could be used to hold an enemy while the second charged through its gaps to administer successive shocks to the opponent. For that matter, less sophisticated troops often saw the spaces in the torren as opportunities to break their enemies' formation and stormed forward into the gaps only to have the torren's second-line battalions charge into their own flanks.
But as if the torren's tactical advantages weren't enough, every Axeman infantryman was also issued a thigh-length chain hauberk, a steel breastplate, and steel greaves to protect his legs. That was far better than most armies-like those of the Empire of the Spear, which relied upon feudal levies for its military manpower-could manage. Even the wealthiest Spearman baron or count would have found it difficult to match the standard-issue armor of the Royal and Imperial Army, yet excellent as their armor might be, the most important defense of "the King-Emperor's mules" were the tall, cylindrical shields designed to protect them from throat to knees and to overlap into an impenetrable defensive wall in close formation.
Protected behind those shields, they engaged their foes with light spears and shortswords. Their spears could be thrown as they charged, showering an opponent with a deadly hail of missiles as they closed, but they were used as hand-to-hand weapons just as often, with each man thrusting out through the narrow gap between his shield and that of the man to his own right. The length of his spear gave him a reach few sword-armed foes could match, but even when it had been cast at the enemy or broken, no one could get at him past his shield as long as his unit's formation was unbroken, and his shortsword was designed for thrusting. Little more than eighteen inches long, it was deadly in the hands of a well-trained veteran.
Of equal, if less spectacular, importance, the Empire's quartermasters and military engineers were the finest in the world. Indeed, the Axemen's single weakness was their lack of cavalry. The Royal and Imperial Mounted Infantry were just that-mounted infantry whose horses (or mules) provided them with greater mobility, but who fought on foot. They were not cavalry, although they were trained to fight mounted (after a fashion) in cases of dire necessity. There was some light and medium Axeman cavalry, but it accounted for less than ten percent of the Empire's total standing army.
Unfortunately for the Empire's foes, the House of Kormak didn't really need a powerful cavalry force. Or, rather, it already had one that simply belonged to someone else. The Empire and the Kingdom of the Sothoii had been allies for over eight hundred years, and only a madman would willingly face Axeman infantry supported by Vonderland longbowmen and Sothoii cavalry.
Personally, Bahzell had no desire to see any Royal and Imperial army advancing towards him whether it had Sothoii cavalry in support or not, but at the moment he found the sight of the tough, seasoned looking sentries almost as reassuring as the sight of West Gate itself. He recognized their surprise as they took in his own livery, and he hid a smile as he wondered what they made of a hradani in the colors of the Order of Tomanak . But they were too well trained to react openly, and the unflappable lieutenant commanding the guard detachment returned Bahzell's raised-fist salute as if he saw hradani every day.
The long gate tunnel seemed unnaturally hushed, despite the clatter of hooves and the jingle and creak of weapons harnesses, to say nothing of the wagons and their teams, but the blizzard was waiting when they reemerged inside the walls. The city's buildings broke some of its force, but the wind continued to howl like souls trapped in Krahana's hells. It seemed even worse after the brief respite the tunnel had provided, and Bahzell shivered as he turned to Wencit once more.
"Would it happen you'd someplace in mind to lead us to when you were after deciding to come out and fetch us?"
"As a matter of fact, I did," Wencit admitted. "Follow me."
He touched a heel lightly to his horse and trotted off through the snow blowing down the deserted street, and Bahzell and his companions followed him into the city.