Hurgrum was smaller than Bahzell remembered.
He'd expected that, but even so he was surprised by how much smaller it seemed. It was half again the size of Navahk, and Prince Bahnak and his father had razed its worst slums and done their best to straighten out the street grid. They'd installed a rudimentary sewer system (which put Hurgrum ahead of most hradani towns, not just Navahk); imposed bloodthirsty regulations to prevent fires, discourage the construction of fresh slums, and govern the disposal of garbage; and required all new construction to be of brick or stone, not the ramshackle wooden structures which burned in winter with dreary regularity. By any hradani standard, Hurgrum was a thriving metropolis; by the standards of the lands Bahzell had seen since leaving home, it was no more than a largish provincial town. All of its citizens and all the inhabitants of the surrounding territory over which it held sway added together would scarcely have matched the population of anything worthy of being called a "city" in the Empire of the Axe.
Yet even through his surprise, Bahzell felt nothing but respect for his father. Whatever its shortcomings, Hurgrum looked like a town-and a civilized one-because it was. Bahzell's father and grandfather had accomplished that much, and it had been a monumental task for people so little removed from barbarism. And looking upon the fruits of their efforts, Bahzell Bahnakson had no doubt at all his father would complete the other task at which he had labored so long and bring the incessant feuds and small-scale wars of the northern hradani to an end at last.
He paused atop the hill, gazing down at the city in which he had been born, and the rest of his enlarged party halted with him. The day was almost balmy, with a temperature several degrees above freezing and the familiar wet, melting scent of an early-very early-northern spring. He was too accustomed to his homeland's weather to be fooled, of course. There were weeks of snow left, but not so many as there had been, and for now he savored the wind that plucked at his hair and ears like playful hands. There was a vitality in that breeze, the promise of life stirring drowsily beneath its blanket of snow, rousing to check the time and then settling back with a comfortable sigh to enjoy one last, short nap.
He glanced to his left and smiled as he watched Kaeritha push back the hood of her poncho and raise her face to the late morning sun. The honor guard which Prince H^uralk of Durghazh had assigned to see him and his companions safely to Hurgrum also watched her, and Bahzell's lips twitched as he noted the uneasiness in their eyes. H^uralk was the lord of Clan Broken Spear, but though the Broken Spears were Horse Stealers, they were considerably more "traditional" than Clan Iron Axe. They were also more xenophobic, seeing no need to waste courtesy on strangers unless there was some specific reason not to cut their throats and be done with it. Prince Bahnak had been able to quench the worst of their xenophobia, but Durghazh remained distrustful of all outsiders, and the fact that Kaeritha was not only a stranger but a woman and a trained warrior had been hard for H^uralk to deal with. Only the fact that she was also Bahzell's companion (and he knew some of the Broken Spears suspected-very privately; they wanted to keep their teeth-that she was a bit more than that) had won her anything like acceptance, and H^uralk's younger warriors continued to regard her as a distinctly unnatural being.
Brandark had been another source of unhappiness. By now all the northern hradani knew the tale of Bahzell's flight from Navahk and that Brandark had accompanied him for friendship's sake despite the traditional enmity between their cities and their rulers. But Brandark was a Bloody Sword. In fact, he was a Raven Talon, a member of Churnazh's own clan. Of course, it was well known that Churnazh had slaughtered his way to the clan leadership at the same time he'd seized the crown of Navahk, but even so Brandark's mere presence on the brink of what everyone expected to be the final war against the Bloody Swords had struck some of H^uralk's followers as a bad idea. Indeed, H^uralk had quietly suggested to Bahzell that he might, perhaps, want to leave his "friend" behind in Durghazh. He had assured Bahzell that Brandark would be treated with the utmost respect and comfortably housed, but the implication had been clear enough. Obviously H^uralk felt that, however close their friendship, Brandark's natural loyalties to his city and clan were likely to suck him into becoming a Navahkan spy if he got close enough to Bahnak's inner councils.
Bahzell had declined the offer, equally quietly, and without mentioning it to anyone else, but firmly. He was only his father's fourth son, and sixty years younger than H^uralk into the bargain, but Durghazh's prince had paled just a bit at the look in his eyes, and the offer had not been repeated. Nonetheless, Bahzell suspected their "escort" had orders to keep a particularly close eye on Brandark, and he knew the Bloody Sword suspected the same. He could tell by the exquisitely polite way in which Brandark had needled Yrothgar, the escort's commander, from the moment they left Durghazh. No doubt it was just as well that Yrothgar was an urbane sort himself-for a Broken Spear, at least-and had chosen to take it in stride, but Bahzell recognized the sharp, genuine edge in Brandark's humor. His friend would have pushed and prodded at the escort commander whoever that commander might have been, with no regard whatsoever for the consequences. It was precisely the same way he'd twisted Churnazh's nose in satiric verse before he fled Navahk, and anyone who made the mistake of thinking for one moment that he wasn't poised on a hair trigger behind his smiling facade, with one hand already halfway to his sword, would never make another mistake again.
And finally, there was Vaijon. In many ways, H^uralk seemed to have found the young knight-probationer the easiest of Bahzell's companions to swallow. He wasn't a woman, he wasn't a Bloody Sword, and thanks to his earlier experience with Bahzell, he was no longer an overdressed, arrogantly conceited popinjay, either. Unfortunately, he was a knight of Tomanak. Kaeritha was too, of course, but in her case the fact that she was a woman warrior constituted such a shocking breach of traditional proprieties that her membership in a militant religious order was little more than an afterthought. Where Vaijon was concerned, however, that membership loomed up in the foreground, more important even than the fact that he was a human in an area in which humans were virtually never seen except on the backs of Sothoii war horses and coursers.
Like Bahzell's own clan, the Broken Spears had little use for any gods, whether of the Light or Dark. They might fear, hate, and despise the Dark Gods, but they placed no particular trust in those of the Light, either. After all, no gods had done them any favors over the last twelve hundred years, and virtually any hradani would have hooted with laughter at the very thought that any deity might choose to do one for them now.
The fact that Bahzell had sworn Sword Oath to Tomanak was bad enough, but at least he was hradani. Presumably he'd looked before he leapt, and even if he hadn't, his common sense would probably come to his rescue before he did anything too foolish in the name of religion. But how could anyone trust a human to show the same restraint? Especially one as young as Vaijon? There was no way to predict how someone with his brain softened by religion might react under the wrong circumstances, and so despite the fact that they rather liked him, H^uralk's guards kept a wary eye on him, as well.
In fact, Bahzell thought with a snort of inner laughter, the escort had been so busy "keeping an eye" on his companions that none of them had had any time left over to pass more than a handful of words with him during the entire journey. But that journey was almost over now, and he felt his spirits rise with every step as he churned back into motion through the muddy, slushy snow.
"Hmpf! Took you long enough to be making it home, didn't it just? And not a letter did your mother and I have in all that time, either! Can you be giving me one good reason I shouldn't be coming down off this throne to kick your hairy backside for you?"
Bahnak Karathson, Prince of Hurgrum and Lord of Clan Iron Axe of the Horse Stealer hradani, had a voice even deeper than his son's. He was three inches shorter than Bahzell, but his words rumbled up out of an enormous chest, and his mobile ears pressed close to his gray-streaked hair as he glowered down at his offspring from the dais on which his throne sat. Bahzell and his companions stood in the Great Hall of Bahnak's palace. The Great Hall would have been appropriate enough as a town hall in most cities of the Empire, but few of those would have been illuminated with the traditional, barbaric spill of torchlight or had such huge, heavily armed guardsmen lounging against the walls and grinning as they watched their prince greet his wandering son's return.
"Not a reason in the world," Bahzell admitted cheerfully. Then he paused and cocked his head thoughtfully. "Other than to be pointing out my hairy backside is wearing armor as might be a bit hard on your toe, that is."
"Oh, might it, now?" Bahnak glared, but the corner of his mouth twitched. "And while we're speaking of armor, could you be so very kind as to be telling me what you think you're doing in those colors? It was bad enough to hear as how you'd been after fooling about with wizards-even a 'white' one!-but it was in my mind that I'd at least taught you better than to be mixing in the business of gods and demons and such!"
"Aye, you did that," Bahzell agreed. "But what's a man to do when a god decides as how he wants him? I tried not listening, and that didn't work. Then I tried outrunning him, and that didn't work. And in the end, a demon tried to eat me and then himself was after turning up in the flesh to bid me join up, as it were, and not a bit of good at all did it do to be telling him no then. Besides, I'd asked his aid, and he'd given it, so what else was I to do?"
"Hmpf! Not much, I suppose, if you'd asked such of him in the first place," his father growled. "And now I think on it, no one as knew you's ever said you were smart, now have they?" Bahzell grinned as Brandark smothered a laugh behind him. "And stupid or no, I'm thinking the color becomes you," Bahnak went on with a slow smile of his own. "Contrasts with your eyes, it does."
"Thank you, Father," Bahzell said with exquisite politeness. "It's pleased I am that you approve."
"I'll not go quite that far-not yet," Bahnak replied, and the hint of steel in the words promised that he meant it. "And Krashnark only knows how it's likely to affect the war. But it's more important that you're after being home, I suppose."
He spoke grudgingly, but even as he did he rose from his carved wooden throne and came down the three steps to the floor of the Great Hall to throw his arms about his son. He hugged him fiercely, hard enough to break the back of any lesser man, and his eyes glowed. Bahzell returned his embrace for endless seconds, and then Bahnak clapped him on the back once with both hands and stepped back.
"Well!" he said, his voice just the slightest bit husky, "your mother's wishful to see you too, and you've some brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews somewhere about the place, as well. We've a deal to talk over, you and I," he went on, letting his eyes move briefly over Brandark, Kaeritha, and Vaijon, "but no doubt we'll get to that in time, and I'm not so brave as to be putting matters of state in front of your mother's orders. So come along-you and your friends-" he added, gathering up Bahzell's unlikely companions with a sweep of his hand, "and let's be getting all the hugging and sniffling over with first."