Sir Yorhus wasn't with them when they left Axe Hallow two days later. Somewhat to Bahzell's surprise-he still hadn't quite come to terms with the authority a champion wielded-Terrian hadn't even questioned his decision to send Yorhus south. In fact, the knight-general had seemed downright relieved by the notion.
"If you think this Tothas has a chance to get through Yorhus' skull, then of course we should send Yorhus to find him," Terrian had said firmly.
"Even though Spearmen aren't so very fond of Axemen as all that?"
"First of all, the Spearmen's dislike for Axemen-and vice versa-is more a tradition than a burning hatred," Terrian had replied. "It's not like, oh, the way the Purple Lords feel about us. Second, the Order has quite a strong presence in the Empire of the Spear. We may be headquartered in Axe Hallow, and our charter may have been confirmed originally by Kormak I, but our loyalty is to Tomanak -who, you may recall, is also 'Judge of Princes.' That means we don't take sides in wars unless one party or the other has clearly violated Tomanak's Code. And-" he smiled faintly "-since everyone knows that, most reasonably sane rulers go to considerable lengths to avoid open violations. But the point is that Spearmen don't automatically think of us as an Axeman organization or of our knights as spies for the King-Emperor."
"Um." Bahzell had leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin, ears half-flattened. Terrian was probably right, he reflected. The Empire of the Spear's hostility towards Axemen sprang from the fact that the Empire of the Axe was the true bar to the Spearmen's unbridled expansion. They resented the fact that the Axemen's matchless power was committed to blocking all efforts to push their borders further north. Still, they understood that the King-Emperor had treaty obligations to protect the Border Kingdoms' sovereignty, and they also knew the Axemen had no objection to their expanding into the vast, unclaimed lands east of the Spear River. Besides, as Terrian had said, the Order of Tomanak was neutral in the empires' rivalry… and its role as administrator of Tomanak's justice served the rulers of both well.
"Besides," Terrian had gone on while the Horse Stealer pondered, "whatever his other failings, Yorhus is as energetic, competent, and determined a field commander as you're ever likely to find. As a matter of fact, he's much too valuable for us to make a desk man out of or demote to subordinate duties unless we absolutely have to. The problem is keeping him away from positions in which his particular brand of piety might shape the Order's policies… or convince those outside the Order that it has. That means that sending him to Jash^an will let us kill two birds with one stone, as it were."
"And how would that happen to be?"
"As I'm sure you know even better than I do, Zarantha of Jash^an is in the process of establishing the first Spearman mage academy under her father's protection." Terrian's tone had made the statement half a question, and Bahzell had nodded back. "Well, there's been some fairly noisy resistance from a handful of Spearman reactionaries. The fact that Mistress Zarantha's a woman is enough to make some of them recalcitrant; the fact that she was educated in Axe Hallow only makes it worse, and some of them are rattling a few swords. I don't think they'd care to face Duke Jash^an in open conflict, especially since their Emperor would certainly support the Duke, but they wouldn't be above encouraging a little 'brigandage' which just happened to run over Mistress Zarantha. Even more ominously, they have some very peculiar allies for conservative Spearman nobles."
Bahzell had pricked his ears questioningly, and Terrian had shrugged. "There would appear to be a good bit of Purple Lord pressure being brought to bear, including what looks like the beginning of an effort-unofficially, at this time-to embargo Jash^an's trade through Bortalik."
"The Purple Lords, is it now?" Bahzell had murmured, and Terrian had nodded.
"Indeed, Milord, and that was enough to make us look very closely at the situation, especially in light of what you and Wencit have told us of Duke Jash^an's and Mistress Zarantha's suspicions about the Purple Lords. No doubt many of the city-states would oppose the notion of Spearman magi simply because anything that contributes to the Empire's independence from the Purple Lords threatens their profits, but I believe Duke Jash^an is correct in believing there's more to it than that. And given that the magi and the Order of Semkirk are our best counters to the activities of dark wizards, we have an unhappy suspicion of what that something more is.
"Which," the knight-general had gone on, "is why the Order of Semkirk has asked us for aid. They have a solid core of mishuki, but they aren't a true military order, as we are, and asking us to take a hand makes sense. Jash^an needs help, and it would be best if that help came from a third party. If the Duke can step back from his role as the primary protector of Mistress Zarantha's new academy and assume a more 'neutral' role, it should help ease the purely political and economic tensions in the area."
"And you're thinking as how using the Order's troops to protect Zarantha would be after letting him do that."
"Precisely. We don't envision it as a permanent responsibility. Any established mage academy is quite capable of looking after itself, thank you, and once Mistress Zarantha has her academy properly organized, we should be able to withdraw our people with a clear conscience. But that will take several years, and in the meantime, we'll need a good field commander to handle the situation."
"And if that should just happen to be taking Yorhus into Tothas' neck of the woods… ?"
"Precisely," Terrian had said again, and smiled. "Best of all, if we don't tell Yorhus that Tothas is supposed to be straightening him out for us, he won't have any reason to get his defenses up the way he does whenever one of us tries to talk to him. And from what I've heard of Mistress Zarantha, she'll probably do as much to get through to him as your friend Tothas."
"Aye, she would that!" Bahzell had chuckled, and nodded. "All right, then, Sir Terrian. Mind you, I've a few reservations yet about this notion of sending people off on a whim, and I'll want to send Tothas a letter of my own, warning him what we're about to drop on him. Whatever your lot may think, Tothas is no member of the Order, and he's no reason at all but friendship to be doing as I ask. But I'm thinking he'll do his best for me still, and you're right about the number of birds we have to kill. And even if Yorhus can make himself a right pain in the arse, I've no doubt at all that you're right that he's the makings of a good field commander, as well. If Zarantha's after needing help, then it's grateful I'll be if we can be sending her good help."
And so it had been decided. It hadn't actually been necessary for Bahzell to write Tothas, for the Axe Hallow Mage Academy had established a dedicated relay to Zarantha long since. The magi were able to relay the Order's offer of troops-and Bahzell's request of Tothas-to her, and she sent back her thanks and acceptance of both almost immediately.
Yorhus had seemed a bit surprised by his new orders, but his eyes had positively glowed as he promised he would personally see to the safety of Bahzell's adopted sister. The Horse Stealer could have wished for a bit less enthusiasm and a bit more rationality, but he felt confident the long, cold ride to Jash^an would cool his ardor. And if it didn't, Zarantha and Tothas would sort him out in record time.
With that taken care of, Bahzell and Brandark, their remaining escort, and Wencit and Kaeritha had resumed their own journey as soon as the weather allowed. Bahzell would have liked to spend more time in Axe Hallow and actually see something of the city, but an ominous sense that time was becoming shorter and shorter oppressed him. It didn't make a great deal of sense to him, since he still had no idea exactly how he intended to deal with his various problems when he got home, but the conviction that he had to get there as soon as possible wouldn't permit him to tarry.
Brandark was inclined to twit him about it, but no one else was, and even the Bloody Sword had no true objection to setting forward once more. And so it was that Bahzell found himself at Axe Hallow's East Gate, clasping forearms one last time with Sir Terrian while a cold breeze sighed down from a cloudless, painfully blue sky.
"It's thankful I am for all your help, Sir Terrian," the towering Horse Stealer said gravely. "And that I've seen the High Temple. I'd like to've been seeing more of it-and you-but there's never enough time, and weather like this is too good to be wasting."
"That's true enough," Terrian agreed. "And I'm grateful your journey brought you through Axe Hallow… even if you won't let us knight you."
"Another time, maybe," Bahzell said with a grin, releasing the knight-general's arm, and looked around at the people waiting to travel with him. Clouds of breath rose like smoke in the crystal-clear morning, and despite the cold, he felt suddenly eager to be back on the road once more. It showed, and Terrian laughed.
"You'd best be off then, Milord Champion! But we'll expect you back again someday soon. And until then-" the knight-general sobered "-may Tomanak's Shield go before you and His Sword strike through you."
"And the same to you," Bahzell responded gravely. He nodded once more to the commander of the Order of Tomanak , then turned his back on the magnificent walls of Axe Hallow. He threw out an arm to gesture at the high road before them and grinned at his companions.
"Let's be going, then," he said.
The weather was almost perfect over the next several days, as if Chemalka were feeling generous now that she'd worked off her tantrum. Bahzell wasn't about to trust her to stay that way, yet for the moment, at least, the sky was all smiles. The temperature remained bitterly cold, but there wasn't even a hint of additional snow. Instead, a few white puffball clouds, too brilliant for the eye to rest on long, floated in a sky so blue it hurt, and the reflected snow-dazzle made them grateful for their snow lenses once more.
Once they worked their way free of the Axe Blades, the high road straightened out again and the long, steep slopes eased. They also left the deepest accumulations of snow behind, and the going was almost as good as it had been on the road from Belhadan to the capital. The party quickly settled back into much the same routine as in the earlier stage of its journey, except that Wencit and Kaeritha joined the morning training bouts.
The wizard claimed it was simply a way to stay warm, since a man of his advanced years had no business using a sword with serious intent, but Bahzell doubted his disclaimer fooled anyone. And the Horse Stealer knew it didn't fool anyone who'd ever had the dubious pleasure of crossing blades with the "old man," whether it was merely for practice or not. The expression on Brandark's face when Wencit disarmed him three times in five minutes had been priceless, and although Bahzell himself managed to hold his own against the wizard, it was a very near thing. In fact, Wencit managed to "kill" him almost as often as the Horse Stealer managed to "kill" the wizard. Bahzell would have liked to think it was because Wencit's sword was enchanted, which-as anyone who'd ever seen him confront dark wizards knew-it most certainly was. Unfortunately, the hradani couldn't quite convince himself that magic explained what Wencit could make that sword do. For all his vast age, the wild wizard remained hard-muscled and supple (no doubt the wild magic had a little something to do with that), and he'd had over twelve centuries to pick up tricks of swordplay Bahzell hadn't even heard of yet.
But much as Bahzell enjoyed sparring with Wencit and adding some of those same tricks to his own repertoire, his bouts with Kaeritha gave him even greater pleasure. His respect not only for her but for her teachers was enormous. She was more than a foot and a half shorter than he, and she might weigh a third as much as he did when she was wringing wet. Most of his weight advantage was muscle and hard bone, as well, and there was no way she should be able to stand up to him in one-on-one combat.
Yet no one had ever told her that, and if he was far stronger, with a much longer reach, she compensated for those disadvantages with speed, skill, and raw aggressiveness. A blow from a sword the size of Bahzell's, even if it was a blunted training weapon, could break bone, mail or no, but that didn't faze Kaeritha. She dove straight in at him with an apparent disregard for possible injury which turned his blood cold the first time he saw it-especially when he considered what would happen to her if she did the same thing against edged weapons. But even as he was thinking that, her toe hooked behind his right ankle, she heaved, and he went down in the snow to find the tip of her sword pressed firmly against his gorget.
Or, rather, the tip of one of her swords, for she used a technique he'd never before confronted, although he'd heard something like it described by Horse Stealers who'd faced Sothoii war maids. Rather than one sword, or even a sword and a dagger, she fought with a sword in each hand. They were light blades which he suspected she'd designed herself, somewhere between the eighteen inches of the Royal and Imperial Infantry's shortsword and the three feet of Vaijon's longsword, but she wielded them with a speed and dexterity which had to be seen to be believed. She couldn't use a shield with them, but Bahzell quickly discovered that her technique more than compensated for the lack of one. Even more impressive, she seemed to use either hand with absolute impartiality, and she could shift the emphasis of her attack between them with devastating speed. It was rather like fighting a whirlwind, and once she got inside an opponent's sword, her victim usually ended up wishing a whirlwind was all he'd been fighting.
She was equally skilled with the quarterstaff she carried upright in her stirrup as another knight might have carried a lance. She was the only person Bahzell had ever met who actually used a staff from horseback, and she spent at least twenty minutes practicing with it every day. Brandark, who had never had the misfortune to encounter a quarterstaff in skilled hands and so tended to look down upon the weapon, made the mistake of chuckling over her antics with it one morning. Fortunately for the Bloody Sword, she decided to treat his amusement as the product of ignorance, not an insult, so instead of cracking him smartly over the head, she made him a wager. She bet him that she could strike a dozen eggs out of the air as quickly as he could throw them at her, and then, for an encore, cracked-not broke, but simply cracked-a half-dozen more with overhead strikes while they lay neatly lined up on a wagon tongue. The wager cost Brandark two gold kormaks, but it also cured him of any misplaced contempt for her chosen weapon.
Bahzell, on the other hand, who had never felt any particular temptation to laugh at staff play, found that it took him several days to adjust to her style. And despite the difference in their sizes, he was the one who had to adopt the more defensive stance until he began to get a feel for it, for her speed and skill offset much of his advantage in reach and raw strength. She was like a terrier worrying an elk hound, charging in and pressing an attack so fast and furious he had no choice but to defend himself. But her technique also required her to parry every attack he could launch with one of her primary weapons, since she used no shield, and if he could hold off her initial, all-out assault, his longer reach, stronger muscles, and heavier blade came into their own once more.
In most ways, the time he spent sparring with Wencit-or, for that matter, Brandark or the male knights and lay-brothers of the Order-was more valuable to him. He was never going to adopt Kaeritha's style, and he'd probably never run into an enemy who used the same technique. Certainly he was unlikely to encounter anyone who used it as furiously as she did! He was much more likely to pick up some new move to add to his own style from the more conventional swordplay of one of the other male members of the party, and he knew it, but the sheer pleasure of seeing her in action made all that irrelevant. Her sleek, deadly speed was a joy to watch, and for all the apparent fury of her technique, it was actually wrapped around a core of lethal precision.
No doubt he should have expected that from someone who'd been chosen as one of Tomanak's champions on the very day of her knighting, but that made it no less impressive. Even more to the point, perhaps, that sense of kinship he'd felt from the start grew stronger with each day. She settled effortlessly into place in the party, slipping into a friendship not simply with Bahzell but with Brandark, as well, which was as deep as it was inevitable. In fact, the one complaint Bahzell had was that, like Zarantha, Kaeritha actually encouraged the Bloody Sword's efforts to improve upon The Lay of Bahzell Bloody-Hand, and she had a dismayingly good singing voice which she insisted upon using to help him along. She'd gone into whoops of hysterical laughter the first time Brandark played it for her, and he could get her to start giggling simply by humming it. Hearing an anointed champion of Tomanak who could easily have cut almost anyone else in the party into dog meat giggle would have been unnerving under any circumstances, but to have her take such unmitigated glee in suggesting fresh rhymes to Brandark was the outside of enough. Even worse, she soon discovered that Vaijon had a splendid tenor singing voice, and when she got Wencit into the act as well…
They made very good time from Axe Hallow to Lordenfel, but somehow the spritely notes of a balalaika and the tuneful trio singing along with it managed to make the trip seem very, very long.