So none of them have the least idea who hired them, eh?" Kaeritha sounded as skeptical as Bahzell felt, and the Horse Stealer snorted.
"If they do, none of 'em's minded to be telling us, at least," he rumbled, and turned his head to spit into the snow in disgust. "Mind you, if it wasn't for that 'Oath to Tomanak ' nonsense, Brandark and I'd soon have the truth out of them."
"It's not 'nonsense,' Bahzell," Kaeritha said, her tone mild but firm.
One knight-Sir Erek-and four lay-brothers had been killed, and six more had been wounded, two severely. Given the odds they'd faced, that was a low casualty list, but that made neither the deaths less painful nor the suffering of the wounded easier. Now the two champions sat apart from the others, wrapped in blankets while they recovered from the exhaustion of healing those wounded men. It wasn't simply physical weariness, but a champion's ability to heal depended on three things: his faith, the strength of his own will, and his ability to directly channel the power of his deity. As joyous as that was, it was also as strenuous, in its own way, as any battle. The focused will and faith, the ability to see the wounded man whole as he ought to be, produced the exhaustion, but the direct communion with their god produced its own sense of… bemusement and almost dreamy wonder. Still, they'd had time to recover from the stronger aftereffects, and Kaeritha gave the hradani a moderately stern glance.
Bahzell grimaced, but he also nodded. There was no question that he commanded their party-which, after all, had been assembled to get him home to deal with Sharna's meddling in Navahk-but Kaeritha had been a champion for almost eight years. It was hard to remember sometimes that she was senior to him, for despite her formidable height (for a human woman), she was of less than average height and delicate compared to hradani women, and she was almost ten years younger than he. Yet senior she was… and no one who had seen her in action this afternoon would ever think of her as a fragile flower of sheltered femininity.
"Aye, I know," he agreed after a moment, "but if the boot were on the other foot, these bastards wouldn't be caring less what our lot might have sworn. And if they hadn't been after swearing it, and if all our people weren't after being in the Order's colors, then Brandark and I could convince them easy enough… and without laying a finger on 'em, either." Kaeritha raised an eyebrow, and he grinned evilly. "We're hradani, Kerry, and all the world knows as how hradani would sooner slit a man's throat than look at him. Trust me. If these lads weren't after knowing as how calling on Tomanak protects them from us, we'd scare 'em into loosening their tongues quick enough."
"I see." Kaeritha considered for a moment, then chuckled. "You know, I think I'd like to see that. And as far as I know, scaring them into talking isn't against the Code."
"As far as that goes, Milady," Vaijon said, crossing from the fire to bring the two of them steaming mugs of tea, "we can always hope they violate their oaths of surrender."
"I don't think that was precisely what Tomanak had in mind when he ruled that a prisoner's violation of the terms of surrender frees His followers from the Code," Kaeritha told him dryly as she accepted a mug. He acknowledged her point with a nod, but the wistful longing in his eyes didn't fade, and she shook her head. "You two deserve each other," she said, waving the mug at them. "Either Bahzell is a corrupting influence on you, Vaijon, or else there was always a nasty streak of peasant practicality in you and you just didn't know it."
"Please, Milady!" Vaijon protested, drawing himself up and looking down his nose at her. "Practicality if you like, and 'nasty' is fair enough. But 'peasant practicality'? My father would die of apoplexy! I am an Almerhas of Almerhas, you know."
"Don't we all?" Kaeritha returned, and he chuckled. He was about to say something more when Sir Harkon walked up behind him. Wencit and Brandark were with Harkon, and the knight-commander looked grim as he held out one hand.
"We found this on one of their dead, Milord," he told Bahzell in a flat voice, and the Horse Stealer stiffened as he saw the golden chain and pendant. He hesitated a moment, then took it gingerly, holding it up for Kaeritha to see, as well. The pendant was an icon in the shape of a scorpion, as long as a man's index finger, crouched atop an oval cut emerald a half-inch across. The creature's stinger-tipped tail was raised to strike, and its eyes were tiny rubies. It was an exquisite piece of work, and Kaeritha hissed as she saw it.
"Sharna here?" She glared at the symbol of the god of demons and assassins.
"Why not?" Brandark demanded with mirthless humor. She looked at him, and he shrugged. "Old Demon Breath took quite a dislike to us-well, to Bahzell, to be honest, though it tended to spill over onto everyone in the vicinity-last fall. From all I've heard, he isn't one to give up grudges easily, and he doesn't seem to be particularly blessed with inventiveness, either. He spent a thousand leagues or so and several dozen dog brothers trying to ambush us. It never quite worked, but he did seem determined to keep trying until he finally got it right."
"That's not what I meant." Kaeritha reached out and took the scorpion from Bahzell. It was obvious she didn't enjoy touching it, but she turned it up and tapped the emerald on which it crouched. "This isn't something a dog brother would wear, Brandark. For all its official connection to Sharna, the assassins' guild isn't particularly pious, and this is the emblem of one of Sharna's priests." She glanced at Harkon. "Did you find any dog brothers among the dead?"
"None," Harkon replied, and looked at Wencit for confirmation.
"There weren't any," the wild wizard agreed. "And we looked very carefully for tattoos after we found that-" he jutted his chin at the scorpion "-too."
"I see." Bahzell leaned back on the rock upon which he sat. He took a long sip of hot tea, then rubbed the tip of his nose while his ears flattened in thought. He felt the others watching him, but he took his time considering the scanty information they had.
"I'm thinking," he said at last, "that there's naught but one possibility. Scummy as he is, Demon Breath is still a god… of sorts. Like as not, he's after knowing what we're about, and like Brandark says, he's not been shy about trying to scrag us both in the past. On the other hand, it's in my mind that himself said not even the Dark Gods dare meddle too directly." He cocked a questioning eyebrow at Kaeritha, who nodded. "Well, I suppose it's possible, then, that he's not told his lot just why he's wanting us dead. Come to that, the way these fumble wits went about it may mean as how he's not even told them who we are. I'm thinking this lot had no notion they were about to cross swords with the Order of Tomanak until they saw our colors."
"I'd say you're right about that last bit, at least, Milord," Harkon said. "The scum who follow Sharna have never cared to meet us in battle, and certainly not in anything like equal numbers. They only outnumbered us by three to two here, and if they'd known what we were, they would have bought a lot more swords to help them out."
"They've certainly avoided this sort of thing in the past," Kaeritha agreed.
"Aye, and Sharna's not exactly noted for keeping faith with anyone," Bahzell pointed out. "He'll send his own worshipers to their deaths and laugh unless there's after being something of special value for him in keeping 'em alive, from all I've heard. Like as not the notion of setting them on us without warning them would actually amuse him."
"But that doesn't mean he doesn't really want to stop us-or you, or the two of you, or even the three of you, counting Wencit," Brandark said. The Bloody Sword rubbed the tip of his truncated ear for a moment, then grimaced. "Phrobus! If I were Sharna, I'd want the whole lot of you as far away from my plots as I could keep you."
"Which only emphasizes the importance of our not letting him get away with delaying us," Wencit put in, and Bahzell nodded.
"My very own thought. But what to do with this lot in the meantime?"
He twitched his head at the miserable prisoners. The fact that Tomanak's Code protected them from abuse by their captors didn't seem to have made them feel a great deal better, and he didn't blame them. The code wasn't binding on the Royal and Imperial courts, and brigandage was a hanging offense.
"I don't see any option, Milord," Harkon said almost apologetically. "We'll have to take them along at least until we meet one of Sir Maehryk's patrols. I don't think they'll slow us, though. We only lost three horses, and our scouts rounded up all of theirs from their camp to replace the losses. Maybe the local magistrate can get more about their employers out of them. Once they're face to face with the courts-and the hangman-they may decide to strike a deal and turn King-Emperor's evidence."
"I'm afraid Harkon's right about taking them along," Kaeritha said. "But we might be able to get just a tad more information out of them. While I would never encourage anyone to violate the Code, this-" she held up the scorpion "-puts a different color on things." Bahzell looked at her quizzically, and she shrugged. "They don't necessarily know that working for Sharna doesn't change their status. As servants of Tomanak it would never do for us to actually lie about that, but if they just happened to get the notion that the Code doesn't protect those who give their allegiance to the Dark Gods, well-"
She shrugged again, and Bahzell gave an evil laugh. Vaijon and Harkon looked at her as if they weren't certain they'd heard correctly, and Wencit only shook his head, but Brandark sighed. The others looked at him, and he raised one hand to wag an index finger under Kaeritha's nose.
"Bahzell is clearly a bad influence on you," he told her severely. "The very idea of a champion of Tomanak suggesting such a subterfuge! I'm shocked-shocked!-that you could so much as think such a thing!"
"Oh?" Kaeritha's dark blue eyes glinted challengingly. "Does that mean you disapprove?"
"Of course I don't disapprove-I'm a hradani, Kerry! I just can't help wondering how Tomanak is going to react to this."
"Oh, I've a notion he'll grow accustomed," Bahzell said, reclaiming the scorpion and dangling it in front of him while he considered it once more from all angles, then he grinned. "Now what do you suppose would be the best way to begin?" he mused almost dreamily. "Should we let Brandark be showing this little bauble to them one by one while he plays with his knife, or should old Wencit be after making sure they've seen his eyes and then give them all a lecture at once?"
Kaeritha's plan worked to perfection. Unfortunately, the surviving hired swords truly didn't know much about the people who'd hired them. No brigand in his right mind would have admitted he'd known he was working for Sharna, yet Bahzell was inclined to believe their protestations of ignorance. Somewhat to his surprise, Kaeritha agreed, for their anger-and fear-when they discovered the truth seemed completely genuine. Any mercy they might have anticipated from the courts would evaporate instantly if they were proven to have knowingly served the Dark, and they appeared desperate to offer any information they could in an effort to buy some sort of clemency.
Only they didn't actually have any true information. The few who weren't regular out-and-out brigands were mercenaries of the sort Tomanak did not approve of, and none had asked many questions when they hired on with their now deceased employer. Nor had they been told they were waiting for a single, specific target. They'd thought they were going to pillage anyone who happened along, and they hadn't even realized the travelers were in Tomanak's colors until the first crossbow bolts were fired. The only thing all of them agreed on was that the man who'd hired them had been accompanied by an inner cadre of ten others, all of whom had appeared to be seasoned fighters… and none of whom had survived.
It wasn't much. In fact, it was worse than nothing in many ways, for it simply confirmed that Sharna was involved without providing a single additional hard fact. But at least they knew now that their enemies knew enough about their plans to attempt to stop them, and that lent a new urgency to their journey. They decided to press on as quickly as possible in hopes of reaching Dwarvenhame before Sharna could organize something more effective than a botched ambush. And while none of the attackers they'd killed or captured had borne the dog brothers' telltale scorpion tattoo, they couldn't be positive the assassins wouldn't be called in. Given that fact, Kaeritha agreed with Bahzell that it would be wise to avoid any town or city. It was easier to watch one's back in the wilderness than among an entire town worth of people one didn't know from Hirahim's house cat and, as Bahzell had demonstrated, sneaking up on a Horse Stealer hradani in the open was a difficult task, at best.
The champions transferred their prisoners to one of Sir Maehryk's detachments at the first good-sized, permanent village they passed, but they barely even slowed down to turn them over. The detachment's senior knight seemed a bit miffed by their haste, but none of their own companions so much as complained, despite their longing to spend at least one night under a snug roof. There were a few wistful sighs when they circled Esfresia itself without even entering the provincial capital, however, especially when the clear, cold weather which had accompanied them from Lordenfel decided to disappear. There were no fresh blizzards, but the sun vanished. The temperature actually rose a bit, but the rising humidity which came with it only made the damp cold bite even deeper, road conditions were miserable, and they were plagued by dense fog and frequent flurries of wet, soggy snow for days on end.
Their pace slowed once they'd passed Esfresia, and not simply because the roads were worse. The ambush had inspired Sir Harkon to put out scouts, and the wretched visibility restricted the distance at which those scouts could stay in visual contact with the rest of the party. A part of Bahzell longed to overrule the knight-commander, but he couldn't. Not only was Harkon right about the need to have someone sweep for enemies, he was also the senior member of the Belhadan chapter still present, and Bahzell was not about to undercut his authority simply because he wanted to move a little faster.
The trip from Esfresia to the Dwarvenhame Tunnel was the shortest leg of their journey so far, little more than thirty-seven leagues, but it seemed much, much longer. The terrain changed once more as the land began to climb towards the eastern mountains, and the high road passed through forest as dense as anything in Vonderland. Trees pressed in on either hand, further aggravating the scouts' problems, and the first few leagues east of Esfresia were particularly hard going as the horses pushed through the deep snow. It took them the better part of three full days to cover barely thirty miles, and Bahzell began to despair of reaching Hurgrum before midsummer.
Fortunately, conditions began to change on the fourth day. The deserted villages with which they had become all too familiar disappeared, and they saw little of the abandoned pasture lands which had stretched across Landria and southern Landfressa. There were more farms, with stout, winter-tight barns and brick silos, but it was clear that most of those living in the towns they passed now had other things on their minds than farming. The high road was clearer than it had been since Lordenfel, and teams of woodsmen were busy in the forest through which it passed. Ox-drawn sledges laden with trimmed tree trunks moved steadily along beside the road, all headed east, and Kaeritha smiled when Bahzell wondered aloud at seeing so much industry in such bitter weather.
"Think about it," she suggested. "What's the one thing folk who live underground have the least of?"
"Ah?" Bahzell scratched an ear, then nodded. "Trees," he said.
"Exactly. Dwarvenhame is as greedy for forest products as Purple Lords are for gold, and these people make an excellent living supplying them. And not just with lumber or pitch or turpentine, either. Dwarves have a deep craving for fine woodwork, but it's not something they're particularly skilled at producing. And this is a good time for these people to do their timbering. There's less need for farm labor, and without rivers big enough to float logs down, winter actually makes it easier to move them. Timber sleds move much better over snow."
Bahzell nodded again, though he remained bemused by the shouts echoing through the forests from the labor gangs. The occasional crashing thunder as trees came down and the cheerful profanity bellowed by drovers as ox teams leaned into their harnesses were a far cry from the icy, deserted silence he'd seen further south, yet he still felt taken aback initially when the locals called out cheery greetings as he and his companions passed. It was good to once more find themselves among people who felt secure enough to greet them, yet after their earlier experiences, and especially after the botched ambush, it seemed unnatural for these people to view any large, armed band with anything other than wariness, regardless of whose colors they wore.
But a little thought helped explain the difference between the attitudes of these industrious foresters and the inhabitants of the largely deserted towns and villages. Landfressa's foresters, like those of Vonderland, were a hardy and independent lot, and most were hunters as well as loggers. There were undoubtedly dozens of bows in their work camps, and given the probable skill of those bows' owners-not to mention the fact that woodcutters were inevitably accompanied by extremely sharp axes-only fools would offer them violence. Besides, however valuable timber might be in Dwarvenhame, it wasn't exactly something brigands could seize and ride off with.
Not that there weren't plenty of other temptations to lure potential raiders, for Kaeritha had been right about the relationship between Landfressa's humans and the dwarves of Dwarvenhame. Winter might have frozen them for now, but in warmer weather dozens of brawling mountain streams ran down to the northernmost tributaries of the Greenleaf River. They were too shallow to be used for transport, but every town the travelers passed boasted its own holding ponds, as if an army of beavers had descended upon the land, and Bahzell and Brandark marveled at the scores of waterwheels those ponds served. Many were idle now, but some still turned, and it didn't need a hradani's ears to hear the sounds of hammers, saws, chisels, and other tools coming from the large brick buildings clustered about them. Among hradani, waterwheels were used only to drive the grinding stones of grist mills, but these people obviously used water to power a whole host of other tools, as well, and Bahzell watched in fascination as they passed an open-sided structure where a water-driven saw as tall as many men slabbed enormous tree trunks neatly into planks and timbers. Neither he nor Brandark had ever imagined such an improvement on the slow, laborious saw pits their own people used, yet the fact that the locals seemed totally unaware that winter was supposed to be a time when the pace of life slowed until the spring thaw was almost more bemusing to them.
The humans in their party seemed to take that in stride, but then, with the possible exception of Wencit-who, as a wild wizard, might or might not be properly classed as a "human" to begin with-they were all citizens of the Empire. Bahzell and Brandark were not, yet the comments their companions let drop told them that busy as all this seemed to them, it was commonplace to the others. Indeed, compared to the more populous provinces further south, all of this bustle and industriousness, however impressive to two barbarian hradani, was downright rustic.
That was an almost frightening thought for Bahzell. His father had worked for years to build a place where merchants and artisans could survive and prosper, and the result had been to make Hurgrum crushingly superior to her foes. By hradani standards, Bahnak's realm was incredibly prosperous, able not only to feed and clothe its people but to arm them and equip them for war with weapons of their own manufacture. It had been an enormous achievement, one which had played a decisive role in Bahnak's rise to the threshold of empire, yet the prosperity and productivity of this area which Bahzell's human friends clearly regarded as a backwater dwarfed all his father had achieved. It put the wealth and power of the Empire of the Axe into stark perspective… and made him realize how incredibly far his own people still had to go.
Or, rather, those busy, productive towns made him begin to realize the length of the journey to which Prince Bahnak had committed his Horse Stealers. It took their arrival at the western end of the Dwarvenhame Tunnel to make the realization complete.