Bahzell was no city boy. In fact, he preferred wilderness to towns, yet he found the sheer emptiness of northeastern Landria depressing, especially since the stretch from Lordenfel to Esfresia was the longest leg of their journey across the Empire. Both Landria and Landfressa were populated primarily by freeholders and the herdsmen Maehryk had mentioned, so there were few of the large estates found in other provinces. There were occasional large family farms whose owners stayed put year round, but they were rare, with fortresslike homes and outbuildings, fierce and well-trained dogs, and inhabitants who were less than happy to see strangers.
Not that the towns were any better. In fact, they were worse. The travelers were barely thirty miles outside Lordenfel when they passed the first village whose inhabitants had headed south for the winter. It was a small place which no doubt housed a relatively small total population even in summer, and its few permanent residences all clustered around the town square, thick-walled and built very solidly of stone or brick. Most were at least two stories tall, with no windows on the ground floor, and several were enclosed within sturdy outwalls, as well. They might have been home to eight or ten families, but no more than that could possibly have been crammed into them, and it was clear people who chose to stay the winter out in these parts were used to looking after themselves.
The lack of local year-round populations also explained the harder going the travelers began to encounter. With towns so much further apart and so denuded of people, there were simply too few warm bodies available for snow clearance. The high road remained just as impressive as a feat of engineering, but the terrain in this region tended to be flat, with only occasional patches of forest. There were few landmarks, and there were many places where fresh snowfalls would have left the roadway impossible to pick out without the rows of firs which marched along on either flank. The wagoneers had stopped two days out from Lordenfel to replace their wagons' wheels with the sled runners. They made much better time over the snow-covered road that way, and when they hit one of the rare patches of bare pavement, they simply moved onto the turfed sections and kept right on going.
Bahzell and Brandark were northern-bred and no strangers to snow country, although the city-raised Brandark had less experience with cross-country travel in winter. Yet not even Bahzell had ever experienced such open, lonely, emptiness in what was supposed to be an inhabited land. In an odd sort of way, the existence of the high road actually made the emptiness worse. Its straight line, nailed down by its rows of windbreak trees; the occasional stretches of bare paving, rising up through the snow like whales surfacing to breathe; the stone bridges which appeared suddenly to leap across streams winter had turned into sheets of ice; and, most of all, the villages whose inhabitants had disappeared bag, baggage, and family… all of those things were like relics of a vanished people. They had been abandoned to the armies of winter, and there seemed no hope spring would ever drive those armies back. The air was so cold it ached, and when they woke in the blessed warmth of their down-lined Vonderland sleeping sacks each morning, they found the outsides of those sacks coated in frost. There was something almost sentient about the implacable power of winter here, and the squeak of fresh snow under Bahzell's boots and the jingle of harness or thud of hooves or occasional snatch of conversation were lost and tiny in the vast stillness.
"I never imagined anyplace this… empty, Milord," Vaijon said quietly one morning. He had abandoned his showy cloak for the thick, wooly warmth of the Sothoii-style poncho most of the others wore, and he pounded his gloved hands together as he swept his eyes over the white, sterile landscape. "It's hard to imagine anyone lives here even in the summer!"
"And you from Fradonia!" Kaeritha teased. The young knight turned to her with a grin the old Vaijon would never have shown an ex-peasant whose mother had been no more than a common whore, champion or no, and she shook her head at him. "Didn't you say your family had holdings in Vonderland, as well?"
"We do, Milady. But villages tend to stay put in Vonderland. They certainly don't up and move away when the snows come!"
"No, but their people also tend to be foresters, farmers, trappers, and fishermen, not herdsmen," Kaeritha replied, "and the population density is much lower in Landria and Landfressa. Over half those who do live here are herders whose herds and flocks simply can't winter successfully in these conditions, which means they have to move, and they don't want to leave their families behind when they take the herds south. If you could be in two places at once, you'd be amazed by how many people seem to have suddenly migrated to northeastern Rustum and the North March about now. But that's not where the majority of them have gone."
"Excuse me?" Vaijon looked puzzled. "I thought you just said they were herders and followed the herds."
"No, I said they were herders who didn't want to leave their families behind when they can't be with them. That's why it's been customary up here for-oh, the last four or five centuries, since the Dwarvenhame Tunnel was cut-for those families to move in with the dwarves for the winter. They pay their way with beef, mutton, and venison, and they also provide an annual influx of hands for the dwarves' manufactories. Weather may make it difficult for them to get their products to market until spring, but winter's always been one of the dwarves' most productive times of year."
"I didn't realize that," Brandark put in. "That the dwarves use other sources of labor during the winter, I mean."
"Those in Dwarvenhame didn't, before the Tunnel went in." Kaeritha shrugged. "From what I've been told, all the dwarves in Kontovar refused to share their secrets with nondwarves, and the Dwarvenhame clans followed that same tradition for six hundred years. But once the Axemen expanded up to their borders and they saw what good use their cousins in the Empire made of nondwarvish additions to their work forces, they couldn't afford not to follow suit. By now, the humans in eastern Landfressa are as much part of Dwarvenhame's industry as the dwarves are. You'll see what I mean when we get closer to the Tunnel. None of the towns up there close down for the winter."
"Um." Bahzell nodded, then cocked an eyebrow at her. "From what Sir Maehryk was saying, I'd understood as how half or more of his chapter's troop strength was up here." She nodded, and he waved a hand at the emptiness about them. "That being the case and all, would you mind so very much telling me just where they are?"
"We should meet some of them in the next day or two," she reassured him. "There's nowhere near enough of them to make patrolling the roads practical, so they're concentrated in forces large enough to do some good and based on the larger towns-the ones that don't lose so many people each winter. Given road conditions, anything that travels out of Dwarvenhame is going to do so in a caravan, and each force is responsible for seeing each caravan in turn safely from its own base to the next one along the road. After that, it turns around and heads back to pick up the next one to come through." She shrugged once more. "It's not particularly exhausting duty. Actually, the Order's main duty up here is to provide security for the folk who choose to winter over, and our people run patrols through the smaller villages at irregular intervals to make sure somebody we wouldn't like hasn't settled into them."
"It still seems awfully empty to me… and big, too," Vaijon observed.
"Does it, then?" Bahzell asked, and something about his voice made Vaijon look at him sharply. The Horse Stealer's tone was mild, but his eyes had narrowed behind the darkened glass of his snow lenses, and he'd tugged the mitten off his right hand. As Vaijon watched, he reached behind his head, as if to scratch his neck, and unobtrusively unbuttoned the retaining strap from the quillons of his sword.
"Milord?" the young knight asked tautly.
"I'm thinking you should be riding on ahead a little, Vaijon," the hradani replied in that same mild voice. "Don't be making a show of it, but warn Sir Harkon that something nasty is waiting in those trees yonder." He made no obvious gesture, but his ears flicked at a thick mass of snow-crowned hemlock and yew, well to the north of the road at present, but curving closer ahead of them.
"Of course, Milord." Vaijon nodded casually and pressed with his knees to urge his horse to a trot.
"And you, Brandark. It's grateful I'd be if you'd be so very kind as to drop back and pass the same word to the wagons," Bahzell murmured as the youngster moved away. "And tell 'em to get their bows strung, if they can do it without anyone seeing."
"Done," Brandark agreed. He drew rein and dismounted, making a show of checking his girth while the wagons caught up with him. Bahzell and Kaeritha continued moving at the same pace, and she glanced at him as she rode along at his side.
"And what makes you so sure there's something waiting up there?"
"I could be saying instinct," he replied, moving his eyes back to sweep the suspect trees, "and it might be there'd be some truth to that. But the fact is that my folk are after having better sight than you humans, and mine is better than most hradani can claim."
"And if you were to be looking just about in the center of those trees, and maybe forty or fifty yards back, it might be as you'd notice there's a break in the snow cover. And if you were after having a low, suspicious mind as notices things like that, you might look a mite closer and be seeing just the tiniest wisp of smoke rising from them."
"You saw a wisp of smoke from here?" Kaeritha's tone was that of a woman trying very hard not to imply disbelief, and he bared strong, white teeth in a fierce grin.
"Lass, my folk are after cutting their eyeteeth in raids on the Wind Plain, and there's naught at all, at all, up there for cover… especially in winter. Which isn't to say the Sothoii don't manage to hide anyway, whenever they've a mind to. Truth to tell, a Sothoii warrior or war maid could hide on a card table, like as not, if they put their minds to it. So any Horse Stealer who's minded to live to a ripe old age had best learn to keep his eyes peeled and his wits about him… especially when things are after looking safest. And with tree cover as scattered and far about as it's been these last two or three days, I've been paying closer heed to the patches we see than I might otherwise."
"I'll take your word for it," Kaeritha said, unobtrusively loosening her own blades, one by one, in their sheaths. She thought longingly of the cased longbow slung beside her saddle, but there was no way she could reach for it without any watcher noticing. Besides, it was a weapon to be used on foot, not from horseback. Bahzell, on the other hand, had casually eased his arbalest off his shoulder. As she watched from the corner of her eye, he slipped the iron goatsfoot from his belt and spanned the steel-bowed weapon one-handed. It was a prodigious offhand display of strength, and he looked up at her with another grin as he slid a square-headed quarrel onto the string.
"You're certain they'll attack?" she asked, a bit bemused even now to realize she had accepted Bahzell's warning without question.
"As to that, I'll not say as how whoever's up there has wickedness in mind. In fact, I'd be letting us go unmolested for certain if it was me over there. We've the better part of forty swords over here, counting the drovers, and only two wagons. Come to that, we're headed north, not south, so it's like enough any wagons we do have are riding empty. They'd get little loot and plenty of hard knocks from such as us, and your average brigand's not one as likes a fight unless there's plenty of profit in it. All I'm after saying is that there is someone up yonder, and I'm not minded to be taking any chances on their being as smart as I about picking targets, if you take my meaning."
"I was thinking the same thing," Kaeritha murmured. "But you do expect them to hit us, don't you?"
"Aye," Bahzell replied quietly, and flicked his ears. "But if you're asking why I do, well, that I can't tell you."
He watched Vaijon reach Sir Harkon, who had succeeded Yorhus in command of their escort and now rode at the head of the party. The older knight glanced at Vaijon, then stiffened in his saddle. Bahzell doubted anyone would have noticed if he hadn't been looking very closely, and Harkon didn't so much as turn his head to look back at Bahzell, but his hand dropped to his side and inconspicuously flipped the skirt of his poncho back from the hilt of his sword.
The Horse Stealer nodded in satisfaction. The dangerous stretch of forest was already well within bowshot or he would have opted for stopping where they were to reorder their own ranks and let the enemy-assuming there was an enemy-come to them. Unfortunately, not even his eyes could see into those dark, impenetrable trees, and he had no idea what precisely was waiting for them. Had he been planning an ambush, he would have brought along all the bowmen he could find and opened the assault with a storm of arrows, and it was possible that was precisely what would happen. But there was nothing his people could do except hope their armor turned any arrows-a likely outcome, unless they faced longbows or heavy crossbows-and keep moving. Assuming that someone intended to hit them, the attack would undoubtedly come at or near that bend ahead, where the trees came closest to the road, and all they could do was ride right into their enemies' arms.
But not, he thought with an evil smile, the way those enemies expected them to ride. The one thing more devastating than an ambush which completely surprised a target was the counterattack of a target which the ambushers only thought they'd surprised. Bahzell knew, for he'd been on both ends of that particular stick, and he knew that men who were certain they'd achieved surprise expected that momentary advantage, that brief period when their opponents stared at them in shock and tried to get a grasp of what was happening. And when the ambushers didn't get that moment of consternation, the advantage shifted instantly in the other direction.
It took veteran troops to ride into a trap without any indication they realized they were doing so, but he'd come to know these men well, and he'd been impressed by their quality. Which, he supposed, he shouldn't have been, considering whose Order they belonged to. Here and there the loose column closed up a little, but so slowly and casually not even he would have suspected why it was happening. The two extra drivers on each wagon had disappeared back under their vehicles' felted covers, and he had no doubt they were stringing bows for themselves and the men left at the reins, as well. The six lay-brothers who'd been riding on the south side of the wagons had also strung their short horsebows, using the wagons for cover, and he nodded in satisfaction. If an attack did come-
Vaijon and Harkon came abreast of the forest's nearest approach, and movement flickered under the trees. Lesser eyes than Bahzell Bahnakson's might not have seen it, but his had, and his arbalest was already moving up to his shoulder even before he realized they had. It steadied, the string snapped, and the crossbowman who'd been taking aim at Vaijon screamed as the quarrel nailed his shoulder to a tree.
Someone shouted, and a dozen more crossbows fired from the trees. The knight riding directly behind Vaijon pitched out of his saddle without a sound, the lay-brother beside him cursed and clapped a hand to the short, stubby shaft suddenly standing out of his left thigh, and yet another quarrel struck Vaijon himself in the chest. Fortunately, it came in at an oblique angle and skipped off his mail, ripping a huge tear in his poncho without inflicting any other damage. Harkon was less lucky, for his horse went down, shrieking as a quarrel drove home just behind its left foreleg. But at least the knight-commander had known something was coming, and he kicked out of the stirrups. He landed rolling and came upright, his sword already in his hand, just as another horse reared in agony and collapsed, spilling yet another lay-brother from the saddle. But that was all the damage the crossbowmen managed to inflict, and someone else shouted under the trees-this time in consternation-as the entire "unprepared" column wheeled sharply to its left and charged.
The woods loomed before them, motionless and menacing for several moments, and then figures began to spill out of the trees. They came in dribs and drabs, like water spurting through leaks in a dike, their surprise obvious in their lack of formation. These were men who had expected to emerge from cover only to confront victims who'd already lost men to crossbow fire and whose survivors were half-broken by the surprise of ambush, and Bahzell shook his head in disgust as he spanned the arbalest once more.
If he'd been in command over there, he would have broken off and fled the instant it was apparent surprise had been lost, or at least stayed put in the trees. The ambushers' only missile weapons appeared to be crossbows, which were notoriously slow-firing in most people's hands. Prince Bahnak's Horse Stealers had adopted weapons like Bahzell's own arbalest, but they had the strength of arm to span them like light crossbows, which let them maintain a rate of fire no one else could match. Still, even human crossbowmen could have gotten off at least one more shot each while their attackers came at them and, at the very least, they could have forced their enemies to come into the trees after them, where mounted troops would be at a severe disadvantage. Coming out into the open, especially without even taking time to shake down into coherent formation, was stupid.
Still, he allowed as he raised the arbalest and sent another deadly bolt through the throat of an attacker, the brigands did have a marked advantage in numbers. There must be forty or fifty of them, and their decision to leave the sanctuary of the trees might not be quite so addlepated as it first seemed.
Most of the Order of Tomanak's knights were medium or heavy horse who fought with lance, sword, battleaxe, or mace. There were exceptions-those who, like Bahzell or, for that matter, Kaeritha, preferred to fight on foot-but almost all of the Order's warriors were horsemen. At the moment, that was a disadvantage, for the greatest weapon of a mounted man was normally his horse's momentum. But the snow off the high road was more than horse belly-deep in places, and however willing their mounts, that snow slowed them as they floundered towards their enemies. It was a problem for anyone on foot, as well, of course, but less of one, relatively speaking.
Fortunately, however, Tomanak's Order rejected the nose-lifted disdain some chivalric orders felt for missile weapons. Unlike those orders-whose members, as far as Bahzell could figure, regarded war as some sort of game in which an arrow was a rank breach of etiquette-Tomanak's followers used whatever weapon served best, and the Order's lay-brothers were mounted archers. Few of them carried the heavy Sothoii horsebows which made the windriders so deadly, but the lighter version they did use was lethally effective in expert hands, and they were experts.
Now the wagoneers and the lay-brothers who'd strung their bows while concealed behind the wagons-a full dozen of them in all-laid down a deadly fire that did to the ambushers what the brigands' abortive crossbow volley had failed to do to the head of the column. Men screamed and fell, thrashing in the snow as needle-pointed pile arrows slammed into them. Blood spattered the snow, shocking in its redness, and Bahzell dropped his arbalest, drew his sword, and went racing after Kaeritha's mount.
The snow was an impediment to him, as well, but not nearly as much a one as it would have been to another footman, and he drew even with Kaeritha just before she reached the enemy. She might prefer to fight on foot, and a quarterstaff might not be a typical mounted weapon, but that didn't seem to faze her. She dropped her reins, guiding her horse solely with knee and heel, and the staff blurred as she sent it hissing through the air in a two-hand stroke. She took her first victim squarely in the forehead with a perfectly timed strike, and blood sprayed as the impact shattered his skull.
Bahzell had little time to notice. The snow and heavy going had deprived his own people of any sort of formation, as well, and what had been intended as a nice, neat ambush turned into an ugly, sprawling melee. Knots of combat coalesced out of the confusion as two or three men on each side came together, and the Horse Stealer's lips drew back and his ears flattened as he met his first foe head-on.
The brigand in question slithered and skidded in the snow, trying to stop himself as he realized what he faced, but it was too late for that, and Bahzell's sword came down two-handed. Razor-edged steel slammed into the angle of neck and shoulder, and the bandit didn't even have time to scream as it sheared clear down through his torso to emerge below the opposite armpit. The mangled corpse flew aside, blood steaming in the cold, and Bahzell turned as three more brigands came at him.
"Tomanak !" he bellowed, and a soprano voice shouted the same name beside him. A quarterstaff licked out, striking with deadly precision, and one of his three opponents fell headlong, temple crushed. He took the second man himself, blade flashing in a long, blood-spattering arc to send his victim's head flying, and Kaeritha-who had parted company with her horse somewhere along the way-blocked the last man's desperate cut with her staff. She drove the brigand's blade to the side, then brought the lower end of the staff up in a strike to his face. He saw it coming and leapt back to avoid it, but he lost his footing in the snow and fell, and she smashed the staff's butt down in a short, savage arc that sent splinters of his shattered forehead deep into his brain.
She and Bahzell whirled, backs to one another as if they had fought together for years, as still more brigands came at them. Bahzell caught a fleeting impression of Brandark and Vaijon, converging to fight side by side, driving hard to reach him and Kaeritha, and another of Wencit of Rum, forbidden the use of sorcery against nonwizards by the Strictures of Ottovar, carving bandits into bloody ruin with deadly efficiency. But there were even more attackers than he'd thought?and, for some reason, he and Kaeritha seemed to draw them like lodestones. None of them so much as tried to get at the wagons; instead, thirty of them drove at the two champions in a wave while the others foamed forward to prevent anyone else from aiding them.
Bahzell had no time to worry about why it was happening, and he snarled as he reached out and deliberately gave himself to the Rage.
For twelve hundred years, the Rage had been the darkest, most terrible curse of the hradani. The sorcery the Lords of Carnadosa had used to compel them to fight under the Dark Gods' banner in Kontovar had sunk into their blood and bone, marking them with a berserker's fury which could strike anywhere, anytime, without warning. As it still could today. But as Tomanak had told Bahzell one terrible evening in the Empire of the Spear, the Rage had changed over the centuries, and when a hradani deliberately summoned that new Rage to himself, it became his servant, not his master.
And so Bahzell called it now, as he had refused to call it for his duel with Vaijon, and felt it explode through him, crackling in his muscles as all restraint, all doubt vanished. Pure, elemental purpose filled him, and the deep-throated bellow of his war cry rose like thunder as he went to meet his enemies.
Kaeritha came with him, and the icy clear precision of his mind knew exactly where she was at every moment. There was no berserker in him. There was only that focused purpose, as pitiless as winter itself, and he went into the bandits like an avalanche, huge sword crunching through chain and leather armor with equal disdain, cleaving flesh and hurling aside bodies. He didn't worry about his flanks or rear. Kaeritha was there, as dependable as his own arms or legs and just as deadly, and the two of them went through the brigands like a dwarf-designed killing machine of steel and wire.
The ambushers' headlong drive towards the champions slowed as the men who'd led it disintegrated in broken wreckage. None of them had ever faced a hradani in the grip of the Rage, and very few men had ever seen two champions of Tomanak fight side by side. Fewer still had survived the experience of facing two champions, and these men lost all stomach for the chance to confront them. Those nearest Bahzell or Kaeritha were too terrified to turn their backs yet desperate to get out of reach, and they began to slip and stagger backwards as they tried to disengage. Those further away took advantage of the distance to turn and run, but the champions' companions had their own ideas about that.
The furious combat redoubled as the knights and lay-brothers of the Order closed in on the knot of bodies which had congealed around Bahzell and Kaeritha, and the way those attackers had clumped to attack the champions proved their undoing. The Order's horsemen had managed to envelop them, and Brandark and Vaijon launched one prong of a driving attack, riding shoulder to shoulder as their horses trampled their victims. Sir Harkon and Wencit led the other prong, hooking in from the far side, and war cries cut through the ugly sounds of steel in flesh and the shrieks of dying men as the early winter afternoon fell apart in slaughter.
And then, suddenly, it was over. The handful of surviving bandits threw down their weapons-many of them screaming "Oath to Tomanak ! Oath to Tomanak !" as they begged for quarter-and Bahzell drew himself up with a snarl. A flash of terrible disappointment went through him for, summoned or not, the Rage was a sweet and dreadful drug. The need to finish the job, to kill and destroy until no living foe remained, pulsed in him, hammering with the beat of his heart. But he was the Rage's master, not its slave, and he drove the hunger from him. He closed his eyes for a long, quivering moment, sending the Rage back to its sleeping place until he needed it once more, and then drew a huge, lung-stretching breath and opened his eyes once more.
He looked down at his sword, coated with blood and hair and more horrible things, then turned to look at Kaeritha. She'd lost her quarterstaff somewhere, and someone's blood had sprayed over her right shoulder and the side of her face. Her shortswords were both bloody to the hilt, the fire of her own battle lust still burned in her eyes, and she limped from a gash on her left leg, but she met his gaze and nodded to him, then bent to wipe her swords one by one on the cloak of a fallen bandit.
Vaijon and Brandark were there, too. The Bloody Sword raised his blade in salute to Bahzell, and the Horse Stealer saw the echoes of the Rage in his eyes, as well; knew that Brandark, as he, had summoned their people's "curse" to him. Vaijon was pale-faced and grim, clearly shaken by his first true taste of combat, but he'd stayed shoulder to shoulder with Brandark throughout, and Bahzell knew how few warriors could have done that.
Now the Horse Stealer turned where he stood and grimaced as he saw the trail of bodies strewn over the trampled, bloodstained snow. His own path was a ruler-straight line of corpses, headed directly for the woods from which the attack had come, and it was obvious which had fallen to him and which to the precise, lethal thrusts of Kaeritha's lighter weapons. The two of them alone had probably accounted for a third of their attackers, he realized, but, then, they'd had an advantage the others had lacked: those enemies had come to them-initially, at least.
But their companions had fought just as hard… and some had been less fortunate. He saw a dismounted lay-brother sitting up in the snow, shoulders propped against another brother's knee while a third tightened a tourniquet on a left arm which had lost its hand. Other bodies in the Order's colors lay still and unbreathing in the snow, and more knights and lay-brothers bent over other wounded friends.
But there were far more bandit bodies, he noted grimly. His original estimate had been low; there had been more like sixty than forty attackers, but less than fifteen had survived, and he gazed at them bleakly as he promised himself the opportunity to… discuss their actions with them. Yet for now there were other things to concern him, and he looked back at Kaeritha.
"Well fought, sword brother," she told him, sheathing her cleaned swords, and he nodded.
"You, too, lass," he agreed, and ripped a poncho from another corpse to wipe his own blade. He cleaned the steel, then sheathed it. "But now I'm thinking it's time I was having a look at that leg of yours, sister," he rumbled more quietly, "and after that-" he twitched his head at the other wounded "-we'd best be talking to himself about healing our friends."