"So that's the way of it, hey?"
A huge fire crackled on the immense hearth at one end of the drafty dining room as Prince Bahnak leaned back in his chair at the head of the table. There had been a time when Bahzell would have noticed neither the drafts nor the thin wisps of smoke which escaped the chimney to add their tiny contributions to the soot blackening the overhead beams, but he'd met rather more efficient means of heating since then. Not that such small considerations as cold fingers and toes or a little smoke mattered in the least beside the opportunity to see his father once again raising an enormous tankard of ale to gaze thoughtfully at him over the rim.
Bahzell's oldest brother, Barodahn, sat to Bahnak's left, facing Bahzell across the table. Barodahn was a bare half-inch shorter than Bahzell and twenty-five years older. Despite the difference in their ages, they had always been close, but Barodahn was a taciturn sort. Although he shared their father's aspirations to drag their people out of barbarism and had always taken greater pleasure than Bahzell in scholarly pursuits, he was far more like the Horse Stealer ideal, outwardly at least. A long-ago sword had left him with a scarred, grim-looking visage, and he had to feel very close to someone before he decided to open his mouth. Even then, he seldom used two words if one would suffice, but he was their father's senior field commander, and when he gave an order, the hardiest warrior jumped to obey. Bahzell's other brothers were absent-carrying their father's instructions to some of his allies, no doubt-and three of his sisters sat with his mother (much closer to the fire) chatting with his companions.
His mother had her embroidery frame before her, taking advantage of the light to set beautiful stitches, and warm memories flowed over Bahzell as he watched her skillful hands. His grandfather, Prince Karath, had been appalled when his heir chose Arthanal Farlachsdaughter as his bride. She was a Horse Stealer, true, and a first cousin of the Prince of Mazgau, but Clan Iron Axe and her own War Hammer Clan were scarcely friends, and she was a slender, delicate young woman (for a hradani). Karath and his own wife had produced only three children in an eighty-six-year marriage, and he'd nursed serious doubts over how many grandchildren a frail young thing like Arthanal could be expected to bear.
Worse, she had a reputation as a shy girl who was actually bookish-not exactly the sort of consort who would be a political asset to a ruling prince's efforts to unite a warrior people. Karath had done his utmost to prevent such a clearly unsuitable union, but for the first time in Karath's memory, his son's intransigence had matched his own. Bahnak had been attentive, polite, and willing to admit at least some of his father's points; he'd also been as unyielding as granite, and, against his better judgment, Karath had accepted that an estrangement from his heir would be even more disastrous than a sickly War Hammer daughter-in-law.
But Prince Bahnak's lady had made liars of her father-in-law's fears. True, she chose to remain in the background, but her apparent shyness actually stemmed from a calm self-assurance which knew her strengths lay in less public areas and saw no need to thrust herself forward. She was an astute observer and analyst, and if she was "bookish," it was only because she shared the same thirst for learning that filled Bahnak, although in her case it was the love of knowledge for its own sake while Bahnak hungered for it as the one thing which could raise his people from barbarism. Despite his initial reservations, Prince Karath soon found himself listening very carefully to her advice, and however fragile she might look, she was far, far from frail. The arrival of his first sturdy, noisy grandson put that particular concern to rest quite nicely, and the way the marriage also turned her War Hammer kinsmen from enemies into allies also dawned quickly on him. The old man was never noted for changing his mind easily, but Arthanal was a special case. He soon came to dote upon her, and his son's willingness to defy his own wishes to wed such a treasure only strengthened his faith in Bahnak's judgment.
Even today, few people realized how heavily Bahnak depended upon her. She was not only his collaborator, analyst, and closest strategic adviser, but also his balance wheel, the steadying influence which helped restrain his occasional bursts of excessive enthusiasm for a given project or stratagem, as well as the center about which his entire family orbited. And if she still chose to remain in the background, she had encouraged her daughters to follow their hearts and make their own decisions. Halah and Adalah, the youngest of them, were made very much in her mold, but Marglyth and Maritha, the two older girls, had thrown themselves into Bahnak's projects as boldly as any of her sons.
Sharkah, Bahzell's middle sister, was the odd one out, for she had no taste for politics and less for scholarship. What she was interested in was the martial arts, and she'd fastened on Kaeritha like a limpet. Bahzell had little doubt Kaeritha's example was going to be the final straw that broke the back of his father's insistence that political considerations made it impossible for Sharkah to pursue a warrior's vocation. Not that his insistence wouldn't have crumpled eventually, given his wife's calm assumption that her daughter-as herself-would do whatever she chose to do.
At the moment, Marglyth and Maritha were elsewhere-no doubt, Bahzell thought, analyzing the initial response to his own return-but Sharkah, Halah, and Adalah helped Arthanal entertain his friends while he and his father talked and Barodahn listened.
"We'd Farmah's and Tala's word for the first bit of your… um, disagreement with Harnak, of course," Bahnak went on, flicking his ears to where the girl Bahzell had rescued from Harnak sat with Sharkah, talking very shyly to Vaijon while Bahzell's sister chattered nonstop at Kaeritha, "and we've heard the song for the rest."
"Song?" Bahzell let his own tankard clunk back onto the table and looked at his father suspiciously. "And what song would that have been?"
"I think they're after calling it The Lay of Bahzell Bloody-Hand or some such foolishness," his father said, with a glance at Barodahn for confirmation. Bahzell's brother nodded, and Bahnak looked back at him. "Why? I thought it a bit pompous, myself, and the third verse doesn't scan at all, but it's not so bad a song as all that. In fact, most folk seem to find it a bit catchy. I can have old Thorfa sing it for you if you've not heard it," he offered.
He started to raise his hand to catch his court bard's eye, but Bahzell caught his wrist with a bit more haste than courtesy, and he looked at his son in surprise.
"It's a kindly thought, Da," Bahzell said through gritted teeth, "but I'm thinking I have heard the one you mean a time or two. And if it's all the same to you, I'd sooner not be hearing it again just now. It might seem a bit prideful, you know."
"Well, as you will," Bahnak agreed, sitting back once more, and Bahzell's teeth ground harder as he saw the faintest twinkle in the backs of his father's eyes. It was all he could do not to turn and glare at Brandark, but the gesture might be misconstrued by one of Prince Bahnak's guards, with potentially lethal consequences for the Bloody Sword. Not, Bahzell thought darkly, that lethal consequences for Brandark didn't hold a certain wistful attraction just at the moment.
"Mother likes it," Barodahn offered suddenly.
"Aye, she does that," Bahnak confirmed, and this time the twinkle was pronounced. "You should see her coming all misty-eyed with pride whenever Thorfa's after playing it." His ears flicked impishly, and, despite himself, Bahzell chuckled. "Would your friend yonder have been having anything to do with it?" Bahnak inquired, gesturing slightly in Brandark's direction, and Bahzell sighed.
"Aye. The little man's no singing voice at all, at all, but he's a damnable hand for setting songs you'd sooner see die an early death to tunes no one can forget."
"And a bit of a wit to him, too, I'd say," Bahnak agreed. He stretched out his legs, crossed his ankles, and regarded his son from under thoughtful brows. "I'll tell you true, boy. I was none too pleased to be hearing as how one of my sons had been after taking up with a Bloody Sword. Come to that, I was even less pleased when the first tales of you and Harnak started coming in. I hadn't thought you totally daft when I sent you to Navahk, but damned I was if I could be seeing any other answer for your mixing in the whole affair. She was naught but a serving wench, when all was said, and there you were, throwing over your hostage bond and like to be after starting the war all over again before I'd had time to make all ready for it-and losing your head into the bargain! Oh, aye, boy. I was ready enough to skin you out and salt you down my own self, if it so chanced Churnazh missed you… until Farmah and Tala reached Hurgrum with the true tale."
He fell silent, left hand playing with the golden chain he wore to mark his rank while his right held his tankard. He took another long, slow swallow, then shook his head.
"But once I'd had time to be looking it over from all angles, as it were, it came to me that you'd done well, lad," he said very quietly. "Not too smartly, perhaps, but you made me proud you were after being my son."
Bahzell met his father's gaze steadily, but his eyes burned. Those two sentences meant more to him than all the other praise of a lifetime, and he knew his father and brother saw it in his face, for they looked away and gave him time to compose himself.
"Well," he said finally, "I did remember as how you'd always said a man looks after his own in this world, and lucky he is if he can do it. I'd not thought it through then, but it came to me that perhaps 'his own' was after taking in just a bit more people than I'd first supposed you meant."
"It was that," Bahnak agreed with a slow smile, "but it's not so very wise to be letting those as wish you ill realize that it does, now is it?"
"No. No, I can be seeing that, especially for someone as sits on a throne-or likely will one day," Bahzell added with a glance at Barodahn.
"Aye." His father sipped more ale, and his eyes were somber when he lowered the tankard once more. He set it very precisely on the table and propped his right elbow on the arm of his chair while he leaned his chin into his palm. His ears shifted in slow thought, and he frowned.
"Truth to tell, Bahzell, and glad as I am to be having Farmah as another daughter, it's the other part of Harnak's doings as makes me most uneasy. Is it certain you are of your facts, lad? It's not that I'm inclined to be doubtful of your word, but I'd not want to be making charges as later turn out false. That's one way to be losing the faith of your own allies and warriors quick as quick, and it's a mistake I've so far managed not to make. I'd sooner not be starting now."
"Aye, Father. I'm certain," Bahzell said heavily. "I saw the Scorpion with my own two eyes when Harnak and I were blade-to-blade, and I heard its scream as he died." His voice was harsh, and his father and brother shuddered at whatever they saw in his eyes. "Even if I'd not seen it then, I'd've known later," he went on after a moment. "There's sides to being a champion of Tomanak as are hard to put into words, but since I took Sword Oath to himself I've… sensed things, I suppose, as I'd never've guessed were there to be sensed before, and I had the handling of Harnak's sword after his death." This time it was Bahzell who shuddered, and he closed his eyes briefly.
"Sharna's there, Father. Whether Churnazh is after knowing he is-that's another matter. But Demon Breath's there, right enough… and though I'm too far from it to be certain of it just this minute, I've more than a suspicion that once I've come close enough to his lair, I'll scent it like a hound on a blood trail. There's a stink to Sharna's work as no one could mistake who's ever smelled it."
"I'll not lie to you, Bahzell," Bahnak said after another long, thoughtful moment. "All this talk of gods and demons and wizards and such-it's enough to make a man come all over bilious." He spoke almost lightly, but his tone fooled neither of his sons. "I've a war to fight-the biggest of my life, or of any of ours-and not a one at all of any of my plans considered such as that. If I had my own way in it, I'd be closing my eyes and ears and letting Light and Dark see to their own coils while I got on with the taking of Churnazh's head once and for all. But-"
He sighed, then shrugged and looked wryly at his youngest son.
"You do have a way with you, don't you just, Bahzell?" He chuckled. "I remember the first day you ever discovered a river, and the muddy, soaked-rat mess of you when Barodahn fetched you up off the bottom. I was set to take the hide right off you for the fright you'd given your mother-aye, and me, too! And do you know why I didn't?"
"No," Bahzell said. "My memory's not so clear as all that. I know I'd expected you to thrash me within an inch of my life. Aye, and it was in my mind I had it coming, as well. But aside from that-?" He shrugged and raised his own tankard.
"The reason I didn't thrash you was that you looked me right in the eye, and you said, 'I'd not've fallen in if you'd've told me it was there, Da. And I'd not've sunk if you'd've taught me how to swim. And I'll have you know I'd almost figured it out for my own self when Barry fetched me out, so if you'll just be getting on with the thrashing, I'd like to go back and try again.' "
Bahnak shook his head with a chuckle, and Bahzell choked on ale as his father's words brought the entire scene back to him. He sputtered for several seconds while Bahnak pounded him helpfully on the back, then shook his finger at his father.
"Aye, I do remember, now that you've recalled it to me. And damned if you didn't take me right back down and throw me in all over again!"
"Well, it was what you'd asked for," Bahnak said with a slow grin. "And you'd been almost right, you know. You were starting to catch the knack of it. We only had to be fishing you out three or four more times, and I don't suppose you'd swallowed more than half the river before you managed to stay on top of the water for a change."
"Oh, I'd think he'd drunk a bit more than half, Da," Barodahn put in in the melodious tenor that always sounded so odd from one of Bahnak's mountainous sons.
"Aye?" Bahnak cocked his head thoughtfully, then shrugged. "Well, perhaps you've the right of it, son. But the point, Bahzell-" he looked back at his younger son and his eyes narrowed "-is that though you've always had a way of leaping into the deep end of anything that comes your way, more often than not you've your priorities straight before you do. I'll not say you've reasoned them out, exactly, and it may be those of us watching from the bank don't know you have them straight, but in the end you're after coming out on top of the water, not blowing bubbles from the riverbed."
He reached forward to recover his tankard, then leaned back in his chair once more, eyes still on his son.
"I've never met a demon, or a wizard, or a god," he said quietly, "and I'm not wishful to. But you have met 'em, and for all I may twit you, and for all you're still not so old as all that for one of our folk, I've a lively faith in your judgment in most things. It cuts against the grain to be having aught to do with such unchancy things, but if Tomanak is after being a good enough captain for you to be swearing loyalty to, then that's good enough for me. And if you-and your friends-" a nod of his head indicated Vaijon, Brandark, and Kaeritha "-are having business with Sharna in Churnazh's back pasture, well, maybe there are some things important enough to be risking my own plans over."
"Then you'll not stand in our way?"
"Stand in your way? No, I'll not do that. And I've no doubt at all, at all, that you'll be finding quite a few of the younger lads ready enough to be going with you."
"Hurthang, for one," Barodahn said. Bahnak glanced at him, then nodded.
"Aye, he's one," the prince allowed, and twitched his ears at the far end of the table. "He's asked for Farmah's hand, for all she's more than a bit young for that yet, and she's accepted," he explained to Bahzell. "And since you were after being so hasty as to take Harnak's head before Hurthang could see to taking his privates with a dull blade, I've no doubt he'll be expecting you to be letting him have some of Sharna's other scum for forfeit. And I'd think Gharnal would be another, being as how it'll offer a chance to be killing Bloody Swords. But they'll not be alone, and I'll not be trying to stop them, either." He grinned suddenly. "Come to that, I might just egg 'em on a bit. It wouldn't hurt a thing for your friend Kilthan to be knowing as I did, now would it? And truth to tell, whatever I may think of the 'good' gods, I'm not so feeble-witted yet that I'll stomach such as Sharna."
"I'd thought you'd see it that way, Da," Bahzell said, "but it's a weight off my mind to hear you say it, and it's grateful I am."
"Ah, don't be thanking me!" Bahnak waved his left hand. "I've nasty, selfish motives of my own. Besides, it's naught but the river all over. Say what I will, you'll be going, for you've always been that way. And these days I've no right to be telling you nay, for you're a man grown, and you've sworn your sword to another's service."
A flicker of hurt leapt into Bahzell's eyes, but his father shook his head quickly.
"No, lad," he said gently, reaching out to squeeze his son's shoulder. "I meant no complaint, and I know your heart will be here with us, always. But you've taken on a man's duties, and if the choice you made might not have been mine, why, I wasn't there, and you were. You'll always be my son, and you'll always have my love, and my sword will always be here to help and guard you at need. But your sword is Tomanak's to command now, not mine, and I know it."
"Thank you for understanding that, Father," Bahzell said very quietly. "Thank you very much."
"Hmpf!" Bahnak snorted, then leaned back once more and grinned at both his sons as he raised his tankard in lazy salute to his youngest. "I was young once myself, boy! Or were you thinking a man as wasn't soft-headed with youth, or feeble-witted, or crazy, or maybe a bit of all three, would be daft enough to take on the chore of uniting hradani?"