They reached Lordenfel six days out of Axe Hallow. Unlike the capital's sentries, those at Lordenfel's gates were barely a token presence, and casual about their duties to boot. Sir Terrian had sent word ahead that Bahzell and his companions were on their way, but it wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't. The tubby, middle-aged sergeant in charge of the gate detail scarcely bothered to look up at their approach. Not even the sight of two hradani seemed to rouse his interest. All that seemed to concern him was spending as little time as possible outside the warmth of the guardhouse, and he only waved them through, then disappeared back to his waiting fire.
Kaeritha and Bahzell glanced at one another with matching scowls while the rest of their party passed through the gates. Bahzell, in particular, had mixed feelings. It was the first time since leaving home that a gate guard hadn't at least eyed him askance simply for being a hradani, which he supposed should have pleased him. Unfortunately, it hadn't happened because the sergeant was fairminded enough to reject stereotypes; he simply didn't care that someone with the reputation prejudice assigned Bahzell's people had walked into his town.
The security of a town Bahzell had never called home was hardly his responsibility, but the gate guards' obvious disinterest in their duties grated on his nerves. He glanced sideways at Kaeritha and saw a matching disgust in her eyes, as well.
"I'm wondering," he murmured, leaning closer to her as the second wagon passed them. "What d'you think would happen if you and I were after creeping up on the guards tonight?"
"Creeping up-?" Kaeritha looked at him for a moment, then chuckled. "Why, Bahzell! What a dreadful thing to suggest. You might get them into all kinds of trouble!"
"What's that? Did I hear someone say 'trouble'?" Brandark demanded from where he rode on Kaeritha's far side. He looked speculatively at her and Bahzell. "Are you two contemplating some despicable deed such as no decent person would even consider committing?"
"Well, as to that-and in a word, as you might say-aye," Bahzell replied with a grin.
"Sounds like a marvelous idea! Ah, just what despicable deed were you contemplating?"
"Bahzell was simply thinking aloud," Kaeritha explained. "It struck him that the gate guards here in Lordenfel aren't exactly the most alert ones in the world."
"I noticed that myself." Brandark grimaced. "I don't imagine too many eight-horse teams or invading Spearmen armies would get by them unnoticed, but anything smaller than that-" He shrugged, and Kaeritha nodded.
"Exactly. And, as any good champions of Tomanak , Bahzell and I have a responsibility to help insure the safety of the peaceful citizens of a city like this. So it follows that we labor under something of a moral imperative to do anything we can to, um, motivate their guardians to attend to their duties, now doesn't it?"
"You can sound dreadfully virtuous when you want to," Brandark said admiringly.
"It's not my fault if simply reflecting on my duties makes me sound virtuous," Kaeritha replied with dignity.
"So just how do you two virtuous champions intend to ginger up the sentries?"
"As to that, I'm thinking it's not that difficult," Bahzell said comfortably, glancing back as the gate disappeared behind them. "There's no moon tonight, and a strange thing it would be if Kaeritha and I couldn't be creeping up on the lot of them unseen."
"Well, I'm not so very certain as to that," Bahzell admitted, scratching his chin and squinting thoughtfully up at the sky. "I suppose we could simply leap out and shout 'Boo!' or some such thing. I've no doubt at all that such as that would be getting the lot we jumped on back on their toes for a time, but I'm wishful to make a more… lasting impression on all the City Guard."
"Don't worry your head about it, Bahzell," Kaeritha advised him kindly. "I know exactly how to achieve your objective. You just follow my lead."
"And don't think the two of you are going to keep all the fun to yourselves," Brandark warned them with a grin.
"I hate to interrupt you three when you're plotting," Wencit put in, urging his horse up on Bahzell's other side, "but I believe that gentleman is looking for you." He pointed, and Bahzell followed the gesture with his eyes. A young man in the Order's colors made his way towards them, and Kaeritha's eyes lit as she saw him.
"That's Lynoth!" she said. "Seldan wrote me he'd been transferred here as one of Sir Maehryk's squires," she went on, then paused, eyes narrowing as she noticed the young man's white belt. "I stand corrected. That's Sir Lynoth, one of the Lordenfel chapter's newest knights-probationer."
The youngster reached them a few seconds later, and Kaeritha smiled hugely, reaching down from the saddle to offer him the clasped-arm greeting of equals.
"So, Nuisance! They finally broke down and made you a knight, did they?"
"Nobody 'broke down,' " Lynoth replied with enormous dignity. "It was simply time to improve the Order's quality. And I have it on the best of authority that they scoured all of Norfressa searching for the squire with the best qualifications, too."
"And a sad disappointment it must have been that they had to settle for you instead!" Kaeritha shot back, and dismounted to throw her arms around him. She hugged him firmly, then turned to Bahzell, one arm still draped around his shoulders. "I'd like you to meet another of Seldan's and Marja's strays," she said. "Bahzell, this is Sir Lynoth Seldanson; Lynoth, this is Bahzell Bahnakson, Champion of Tomanak ."
"I'm honored to greet you on behalf of the Lordenfel chapter, Milord Champion," Lynoth said soberly. "Sir Maehryk sent me because he knew Kerry was with you."
"Did he, now?" Bahzell ran thoughtful eyes over the youngster and nodded mentally in approval. Lynoth wasn't very tall, even for a human, no more than five-eight or five-nine, but he had a wrestler's powerful physique. He couldn't possibly be more than a year older than Vaijon, and Bahzell liked his open, infectious smile. "Well then, Sir Lynoth," he went on after a moment, "why don't you just lead the way home?"
Lordenfel was much smaller than Belhadan, and downright rustic compared to Axe Hallow. In fact, it was little larger than Esgfalas, capital of the Grand Duchy of Esgan. Bahzell had thought Esgfalas a large city when he first saw it, but he'd learned better since. Now, to his more experienced eyes, Lordenfel looked like a sleepy, provincial town, despite its walls and battlements. Winter probably contributed to its sleepiness, but the energy of its people and economy would never approach those of Belhadan. Yet the Lordenfel Chapter of the Order was almost twice the size of the Belhadan Chapter. That struck Bahzell as odd, at first, but Sir Maehryk explained it simply enough.
"Yes, we're larger than the Belhadan Chapter, Milord Champion," he agreed. He was about Sir Charrow's age, but his dignified-"stuffy" was the word which actually sprang to Bahzell's mind-manner made him seem older. He also had a pronounced tendency to lecture, and Bahzell felt vaguely betrayed by how Kaeritha had abandoned him to Maehryk's undivided attention. He wouldn't have minded her eagerness to visit with her younger brother if he hadn't been pretty sure she knew Maehryk of old and had deliberately used the novelty of a brand new hradani champion to distract the chapter master from her own disappearance.
"But big as we are," Maehryk went on now, "less than half our people are here at any given moment. As I'm sure you'll notice when you move on into Landfressa, towns and villages are few and far between from here to the mountains. The soil's good enough, but the growing season is short, and most of our country folk are herdsmen of one sort or another. I'd guess that as many as half the villages in Landfressa shut down entirely in the winter when the cattle and sheep move south, and that leaves us with two problems."
He paused, one eyebrow raised, like a tutor waiting to see if his student knew the answer, and Bahzell snorted.
"Wilderness breeds brigands-or hiding places for 'em, at least," he said shortly, "and without city guards or local militias to root 'em out, then it's up to the army… or someone else."
"Exactly," Maehryk agreed. "And that's especially true here. Once winter closes the Esfresia-Dolmach high road, anything shipped out of Dwarvenhame has to follow the southern route through Lordenfel and Axe Hallow to Belhadan. There may not be much traffic compared to what passes through during the summer, but the pickings are still rich enough to draw bandits. So we lend a hand to keep the roads open. In fact-" he paused, frowning while he stroked his short, gray beard "-we've been busier than usual this year. The stretch just the other side of the border into Landfressa's been particularly bad. You might want to watch yourselves when you get to it, Milord Champion."
"We'll do that." Bahzell managed to keep from sounding short-again-but it was hard, and he felt a twinge of guilt. Maehryk was a conscientious man, or he would never have been chosen for this post, far less left in it for going on eight years. But he was obsessively formal and had about as much liveliness as a salted cod, and Bahzell simply couldn't warm to him as he had to Charrow or Sir Terrian.
He started to say something more, but the sound of the dinner bell interrupted him, and he rose with a bit more haste than was strictly courteous. He tried not to feel grateful for the reprieve-or glad they would be spending only a single night in Lordenfel-and ordered himself to be pleasant over supper as Maehryk led him to the dining hall.
Sir Lynoth was waiting in the morning to escort them on their way once more. Bahzell and his friends had risen early, eager to make as much distance as the short winter daylight permitted, but Lynoth and most of the rest of the chapter house clearly had already been up for quite some time. Whatever had roused them had upset Sir Maehryk, too, and there seemed to be quite a few uniformed members of the City Guard about. The prim and proper chapter master could scarcely be accused of discourtesy, but he was plainly preoccupied and perilously near to abrupt with the Guard lieutenant who followed him about so closely that he seemed to have been grafted onto his left shoulder. He didn't even put in an appearance until after the travelers had broken their fast, and when he did arrive to bid them formal farewell his attention was clearly elsewhere.
But whatever had upset Maehryk seemed to have had an opposite effect on other members of the chapter. The younger knights-probationer and knights-companion, in fact, appeared to experience some difficulty in maintaining straight faces, and Lynoth looked like someone who'd swallowed a bumblebee. Kaeritha gave him a glance of sisterly repression, but even so he broke out in coughing fits suspiciously like camouflaged laughter three times while Maehryk was bidding the chapter's guests farewell.
"-and may Tomanak's Shield go before you until He brings you back to us once again," the knight-captain finished his formal speech at last, nodded briskly, and then hurried off once more with the Guard lieutenant bobbing in his wake. Lynoth watched them go, then started to turn and look at his sister once more, only to stop, as if he didn't trust himself to meet her gaze while Maehryk might still be in earshot.
"W-we'd better go now," he said in a curiously breathless voice, and walked quickly down the chapter house steps to where the rest of their party waited, along with horses for Wencit, Kaeritha, and Brandark. The young knight swung up into his own saddle and deliberately looked anywhere but at Kaeritha while he waited for the others to mount. Bahzell watched his performance with a small, crooked smile, then waved to the others and strode off down the street while they followed in a clatter of hooves.
"And what, pray tell, has your drawers all knotted up this morning, Nuisance?" Kaeritha asked sweetly, and Lynoth instantly lost his battle not to laugh. He leaned forward in the saddle, roaring with laughter, and his horse tossed its head in disgust at the hopeless mirth of the feeble, two-legged creature on its back.
Kaeritha watched with the exasperated patience of a sister and let him laugh for several minutes. Then she drew her right foot from the stirrup and kicked him none too gently on his left hip. His startled horse crow-hopped away from her, but the kick had the desired effect, and Lynoth managed to drag himself back under control.
"S-sorry," he got out, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes. "It's just that some of us have been so pissed off for so long with-" He stopped again and drew a deep breath, then looked his sister straight in the eye. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about what happened at South Gate last night, would you?"
"South Gate?" Kaeritha's dark blue eyes were innocent as a new dawn. "Whatever makes you think I'd know anything about South Gate? For that matter, what did happen?"
"Well, that's part of the mystery," Lynoth told her. "Tell me, did you notice anything about the gate guard when you arrived yesterday evening?"
"Aside from the fact that they were more concerned with toasting their backsides than doing their duty, you mean?"
"That's precisely what I mean." Lynoth's humor faded, and there was very little mirth in his voice when he continued. "Sergeant Gosanth-he was the sergeant of the watch who passed you through-has been sitting on his fat arse all fall and winter. It's bad enough when a guardsman does that out of sheer lard-butt laziness, but quite a few of us have suspected there was more to it in his case."
"Ah? And what more would that have been?" Bahzell put in mildly, cocking his ears at the young knight.
"Let's just say certain individuals seem to have been departing with property whose title was in doubt on nights when Gosanth had the watch," Lynoth replied.
"I see." Bahzell shook his head. "Sure and it's a sad shame to know anyone might so much as think a fine, upstanding sergeant of the Guard would be having truck with such as that," he said piously.
"To be sure," Lynoth said dryly, and his mouth quirked in a fresh smile. "Sir Maehryk felt much the same as you, Milord Champion. And despite certain, um, rumors which reached his ears, he also felt very strongly that it was not the Order's business to interfere in the internal affairs of the City Guard."
"And very properly, too," Brandark put in. "Why, what would the world come to if just everyone went about poking his nose into other people's business?" he added, stroking his own prominent nose for emphasis.
"No doubt you're right, Lord Brandark. But apparently someone decided to poke his nose-or, rather their noses-into it last night."
"How so?" Kaeritha asked.
"Well, I've only heard bits and pieces of it so far, and I'm fairly sure it's grown in the telling," her brother said, and paused to give her a sharp look. She returned it blandly, and he grinned. "I can only hope that someday the individuals involved will give us the details," he went on, "but from what Gosanth is claiming, at least two dozen masked brigands appeared out of nowhere and set upon him and his valiant squad with clubs."
"No! Two dozen? With clubs?" Kaeritha shook her head, and Lynoth shrugged.
"That's his story, and he's sticking to it. As a matter of fact, I think I did hear someone else say something about quarter staffs," he said, glancing at the staff braced upright in Kaeritha's right stirrup. "And there was something else about giants summoned up by spells," he went on, glancing in turn at Bahzell, who looked back with an air of total innocence. "And someone else said something about hearing music coming from the guardhouse," Lynoth added with a glance for Brandark's balalaika.
"Goodness gracious," Kaeritha said comfortably. "What a dreadful experience it must have been, to be sure."
"Well." Lynoth gave a lurking smile. "From all accounts, the really dreadful part didn't begin until whoever was playing the music started trying to sing."
"Oh, it didn't, hey?" Brandark growled. Bahzell's innocent expression seemed to crack momentarily, but he had it under control by the time Lynoth glanced back his way.
"So what were these mysterious brigands after doing?" he asked. "I'm hoping no one was hurt too badly?"
"Oh, hardly at all, Milord. Aside from a few bruises and one or two contusions, the 'brigands' seem to have been very careful not to, ah, damage anyone. But whoever they were, they appear to have walked in while some of that mislaid property I mentioned was in the process of walking out, because it was all piled in a heap in the center of the guardroom when Gosanth's relief turned up. And the relief also found Gosanth's entire detail-plus six burglars and a fence the Guard's been hunting for months-wrapped up in rope like moths in so many cocoons and hanging from the rafters."
"My goodness!" his sister murmured. "But why was Sir Maehryk so perturbed?"
"Well, I'm sure most of it was no more than a perfectly understandable state of shock that members of the Guard could possibly be involved in criminal activity," Lynoth said gravely. "But I suppose part of it could be the fact that someone chalked the Sword and Mace on all the stolen property. That, of course, suggests the Order was somehow involved-which, as we all know, couldn't possibly be the case without Sir Maehryk's knowledge. And you saw the lieutenant who was with him this morning?" Kaeritha nodded, and Lynoth shrugged. "That was Sergeant Gosanth's platoon commander. I gather his superiors are none too happy with him, but he comes from a very prominent family, and he seems determined to nag Sir Maehryk into confessing that the Order was behind the whole thing and that he had nothing to do with Gosanth's… activities. But since the Order didn't have anything to do with it, there's nothing Sir Maehryk can confess to-or say to clear the lieutenant. Only the lieutenant doesn't want to accept that, and Sir Maehryk's too polite to have him tossed out of the chapter house by force."
"Dear, dear, dear," Kaeritha sighed, and shook her head sorrowfully. "I do hope they get to the bottom of it… eventually."
"Oh, I'm sure they will… eventually," her brother agreed. The two of them grinned impishly at one another, but then Lynoth looked up and his grin faded. North Gate lay before them, with traffic flowing smoothly in and out in the chill morning sunlight. The corner of his mouth quirked again as he observed the industry with which the Guard detail attended to its duties. No doubt the two lieutenants, one captain, and the major looking over its sergeant's shoulder had something to do with that.
"It looks like the rest of the Guard's heard about Gosanth's adventure," he observed. "Do you suppose that was what whoever it was had in mind?"
"Now how would such as us be knowing a thing about the twisted minds of those as could treat poor Gosanth in such a way?" Bahzell demanded.
"Forgive me, Milord Champion. You couldn't possibly understand how such depraved individuals must think," Lynoth apologized.
"And don't you forget it, Nuisance!" Kaeritha admonished, then urged her horse alongside his to throw an arm around him. She hugged him tight, then released him and waved a finger under his nose. "And don't forget to write Seldan and Marja, either, you ungrateful whelp!"
"I won't, I won't!" he promised, and drew rein. The rest of the party flowed past him to pass through the gate under the Guard detail's eagle eye, but Bahzell paused to clasp arms with him.
"Look after yourself, youngster," the hradani advised him. "And don't go making too much mock of Sir Maehryk," he added in a sterner tone, lowering his voice so that no one else could hear. "I've no doubt he's an old stick-in-the-mud at times, but he's also the head of your chapter. It'll do him no harm to be shaken up from time to time if he's getting too stuffy, but it's not the place of a knight to undercut his commander's authority without better cause than stuffiness."
"Of course, Milord. I didn't mean-" Lynoth began with a dark blush, then cut himself off, and Bahzell smiled at the youngster's refusal to try to wiggle out of the implicit rebuke.
"I wasn't thinking you meant aught by it, lad, and I'd not give two coppers for a youngster as didn't want to see his elders brought down a peg or two once in a while. But it's not something as sits well in a chain of command."
"No, Milord. I can see that." Lynoth nodded soberly, and Bahzell reached out to squeeze his shoulder.
"Good! And now, if you'll forgive it, your sister and I have a ways to go yet."
"Yes, Milord. May Tomanak ride with you."
"And with you, Sir Lynoth." The massive Horse Stealer nodded once, turned, and walked away after his friends. Then he paused in the gateway and looked back with a grin. "And I'll see to it she's after writing to Seldan and Marja, too!" he promised.