P ipe smoke hung heavy among the overhead beams as Bahzell, Kaeritha, and Vaijon leaned over the map of Navahk. It wasn't as good as the ones Prince Bahnak had ordered made of his own lands and those of his allies, since Prince Churnazh would have taken the presence of Horse Stealer survey crews unkindly. But it was better than the vast majority of maps the Navahkans themselves might possess, and Brandark had smiled with pleasure when he saw it. Now he sat opposite Bahzell and Kaeritha, flanked by Gharnal and Hurthang, most senior of the young warriors who'd chosen to join Bahzell's effort to deal with Sharna's contamination. Another fifty-two Horse Stealers crowded around the table, peering over shoulders while they nursed carved pipes and foamy mugs of ale.
They'd been joined by a single hradani woman: Bahzell's sister, Marglyth, who sat beside Kaeritha. Eleven inches shorter than Bahzell, Marglyth bore a strong resemblance to her mother, with the same slender gracefulness. Only a year younger than Barodahn, she had a husband and twin sons of her own, the younger named for his Uncle Bahzell… none of which prevented her from serving as Prince Bahnak's Chief Justiciar.
Vaijon had seemed surprised that Hurgrum's senior magistrate was a woman, but only because he still failed to understand how deeply the Rage had cut into hradani souls. Even in Hurgrum, no woman could hold a crown in her own right among a warrior people whose ruler, by tradition, must be prepared to meet challengers personally. That didn't mean they couldn't exercise powerful authority in other ways, however, and most hradani judges and diplomats were women for the simple reason that their immunity to the Rage meant it could not affect their judgments.
What was unusual about Hurgrum, however, was that women comprised half the members of the Prince's Council. Most hradani rulers had at least one or two women on their councils, and any clan lord (as distinct from princes) always listened with enormous respect to the advice of his clan's matriarch. But Bahnak's decision to make ten of his twenty-one privy councilors women was yet another unheard of innovation… and yet another which had paid powerful dividends. In fact, Marglyth was not only his Chief Justiciar but his First Councilor, and he relied on her political advice almost as heavily as he did on her mother's-or as he relied on Barodahn's advice in military matters. One of Bahnak's greatest strengths was that he had sufficient confidence in himself to take advantage of the advice of others, and his children had been trained to think for themselves just as he did.
In this case, however, Marglyth was present because, in addition to her councilor's and judicial duties, she also headed Hurgrum's espionage service. As such, she probably knew more about events in Churnazh's court even than Brandark.
The huge map room in which they had met had been designed as a place for Bahnak and his senior officers to confer while planning strategy, which meant it had been built to scale for Horse Stealers and had been intended to house fairly large numbers of them, but it still seemed unreasonably packed. On the other hand, few of the people in it cared very much. This was the first time all of them had been gathered in one spot, and, as a security measure, Bahzell had refused to brief anyone until all were assembled. It wasn't that he was especially distrustful of anyone in his father's court, but Sharna was the patron of assassins and deceit as well as demons, and his minions' ability to ferret out secrets was renowned. But the volunteers were all here now, and every eye was intent as Brandark tapped the map with the tip of a dagger.
"There," he said, using the dagger to trace a rough triangle in the heavily wooded hills southwest of Navahk. "This section down here-right on the border with Arthnar. I've never been near the area myself, but this is the general direction the rumors say Harnak liked to 'go hunting' in."
"Hunting, hey?" Gharnal rumbled. He gazed at the map, then raised his eyes to Bahzell. "I can't say as how rumors about hunting trips fill me with confidence, Bahzell."
"Can't you, then?" Bahzell sat back, propping his crossed forearms on the table before him, and looked at Gharnal thoughtfully. Gharnal Uthm^agson was his and Marglyth's foster brother, and the three of them had been the closest of friends from childhood. Unlike Hurthang, who was his fourth cousin, Gharnal was about as distantly related to Bahzell (by blood) as a man could be and remain a member of the same clan, but he'd been raised as Bahnak's son after his own father was killed in a border clash with Navahk. At barely six feet ten, he was short for a Horse Stealer, but he compensated with a barrel-like chest and enormous shoulders and arms, and he'd distinguished himself in Hurgrum's last war against the Bloody Swords. Unfortunately, one reason he'd done so was the Rage-like passion of his hatred for Bloody Swords in general and Talon Claws in particular, and Bahzell knew he'd managed to tolerate Brandark's presence with a sheathed sword-so far-only because the Navahkan was Bahzell's sword brother.
"No, I can't," Gharnal replied without so much as a glance at Brandark. "We're after speaking of sending nigh on three-score warriors into Bloody Sword territory in the middle of winter. Aye, and when we're still officially at peace with the bast-scum!" He glanced at Marglyth and Kaeritha and hastily substituted another word for the one he'd started to use, but then he went on with undiminished forcefulness. "If it's all the same to you, I'm wishful to be having something just a mite more certain than rumors of hunting trips to guide 'em by when we do."
Brandark started to speak but closed his mouth when Bahzell stepped on his toe under the table. The Bloody Sword had exhibited unusually diplomatic behavior during the six days it had taken for Bahnak to pass the word that Bahzell needed volunteers and for those volunteers to assemble. It didn't come naturally to him, and he'd managed it only because the iron rules of hradani hospitality cut both ways. Just as Gharnal could not offer him open discourtesy while he was Bahzell's guest, so it was incumbent upon Brandark to refrain from provoking his hosts by openly insulting them. But that was more easily said than done, and Bahzell knew his friend's temper was growing dangerously short. He opened his own mouth, but Hurthang spoke before he could.
"Hisht, now, Gharnal!" At a mere seven-two, Hurthang was, if possible, even stronger than Bahzell. His weapon of choice was a battleaxe: a two-hand, daggered great-axe, the weapon from which Clan Iron Axe had taken its name centuries ago. Similar to the dwarvish axes still used by the Royal and Imperial Army's elite Brothers of the Axe, Hurthang carried it slung across his back even now. But whereas the Axe Brothers used it two-handed, Hurthang used it with one, and he could do things with it which no dwarf had ever even dreamed of.
Now he looked at Gharnal with a crooked smile and shook his head. If his voice was less deep and rumbling than Gharnal's it was still stronger and more resonant than any human voice, and he had at least as much reason to hate Navahk as Gharnal did. He hadn't lost a father, but he had lost two brothers… which didn't even mention what Harnak had done to Farmah. In some lands, Farmah would have been considered forever soiled, as if what Harnak had done were somehow her fault. Hradani didn't see things that way, but they did believe in justice and vengeance, and Hurthang wanted those things for his betrothed. He wanted them badly, and with Harnak dead, the only place he could get them was from Harnak's kin. That was the reason he'd hurried to answer Bahzell's call, and everyone knew it. Which meant that when he was prepared to accept that there were other, equally important considerations, even Gharnal had to listen. He was also four years older than Bahzell and one of Barodahn's junior captains, with an easy air of authority. And he wasn't Gharnal's foster brother. However much Gharnal might accept Bahzell's authority, that childhood relationship colored their thoughts and reactions. That meant that in many ways Hurthang could speak much more pointedly to Gharnal than Bahzell or Marglyth without raising the specter of injured feelings and potential friction.
"Unless you've some better clue to guide us," he went on, "then I'm thinking you should be keeping your mouth shut-or busy with an ale mug!-till we've had the hearing of whatever it is Brandark here has to say."
The grin which accompanied his words defused their sting, helped by the rumbling chuckles from the men standing around the table. For an instant it looked as if Gharnal might take umbrage anyway, but then he shook his head with an unwilling chuckle of his own. He still didn't look at Brandark, but he flicked his ears in assent.
"Aye, you've the right of it," he told Hurthang, and glanced at Bahzell. "I'll just be taking Hurthang's advice," he said in oblique apology, reaching for his mug, and Bahzell nodded back, then made a small gesture for Brandark to continue.
"As I say," the Bloody Sword began afresh, tapping the map once more and speaking-almost-as if no one had interrupted, "this is one area where the rumors say Harnak liked to hunt. But he never took any other members of Churnazh's court-except for Lord Yarthag, who's as sick a bastard as ever Harnak was-with him. And unlike the other areas in which he sometimes hunted, he did take a picked group of his own guard with him. They were always the same ones, and every one of them was a clanless man loyal only to him." He looked up at Bahzell. "I recognized two of them when he and his men caught up with us down south," he added quietly.
"Ah." Bahzell folded his ears close in understanding and heard a soft rustle go through the Horse Stealers at Brandark's indirect reminder that, unlike any of them, he had been there when Bahzell fought a living avatar of Sharna sword-to-sword. Even Gharnal nodded, his distaste for Brandark at least temporarily muted.
"Would there be anything more 'rumor' could be telling us?" Bahzell asked after a moment, and Brandark shrugged.
"I don't know, really. Harnak liked to tell stories about taking enemies off into the woods to 'play' with, and I know for a fact that he often did take people from his father's dungeons-or sometimes right off the street-and come back without them. And he was always certain they were unarmed and bound before he went anywhere with them."
Brandark's lip curled, and the Horse Stealers growled contemptuously. Any one of them would have agreed that the only truly good enemy was a dead one, but they had nothing but disdain for a so-called warrior who tortured helpless foes for pleasure.
"We've been hearing the same rumors," Marglyth put in, her rich contralto voice thoughtful. She reached out and rubbed the tip of her own finger over the area Brandark had indicated. "I'd not heard where it was he took them, though-or that Yarthag was after going with him, Lord Brandark-but now that you've said it, I'm thinking a few things have just come clear for me."
"Such as?" Bahzell asked.
"Well-" His sister frowned, right hand caressing the small golden balance scale she wore on a chain about her neck to mark her justiciar's office. "This Yarthag is after being one of Churnazh's favorites, and from all accounts, he and Harnak were close as close before Harnak's… difficulties." She smiled at Bahzell. "But the thing we'd never been able to puzzle out was just where he'd come from. It was as if he'd sprung up out of the ground one day, with no one at all, at all, knowing who he was or why Churnazh should be showing him such favor.
"The best we could be making out was that Yarthag had been Churnazh's spy-aye, and maybe a bit of an assassin-in the old prince's household." Bahzell's eyes narrowed and his ears flattened at the word "assassin," and she nodded. "Whatever it was he'd done, Churnazh was after rewarding him well enough, for he stripped the old House of Harkand's head of his lordship and bestowed it on Yarthag."
"I remember Father talking about that when he was among people he trusted," Brandark confirmed. "The other old families didn't much care for it, but that was before you people took Churnazh down a peg. At that point, he could still ride roughshod over opposition, and anyone who complained openly about what happened to Harkand-or about Yarthag's sudden precedence-tended to lose his head."
"True enough," Marglyth agreed. "But the thing that's stuck in my mind about him, and especially since Harnak's fall, is how good the man's proved himself at shifting sides without losing his head. Apparently he was after betraying the old prince to Churnazh, and after that, he spent his time sucking up to Harnak. It's common knowledge he'd made his choice to back Harnak against the rest of Churnazh's sons, and all our sources agreed as how he and Chalghaz were at dagger-drawing over it."
Bahzell nodded. Chalghaz had been Harnak's next younger brother, which had made them rivals for their father's favor… and his crown. That could all too easily have led to fatalities, under the rules of Navahkan politics, but with Harnak dead, Chalghaz was his father's undisputed heir. For now, at least. Arsham Churnazhson was next in line, but he was also illegitimate. Known as "the Bastard," he was popular with the army, yet few of his father's courtiers would have supported him. Although he was no paragon of virtue, he came far closer to it than his father or brothers, and he chose to spend as much time as possible in the field rather than watching his relatives' abuse of power in Navahk. As for Chalak, Churnazh's fourth son, only desperation could make him an acceptable candidate for the throne. Known behind his back as "Tallow Brain," Chalak was a plotter whose intrigues were both endless and boundlessly inept.
"But now that Harnak's gone," Marglyth went on, "Yarthag's changed his tune. As nearly as I can be telling, he's grown as close to Chalghaz as ever he was to Harnak, and in record time."
She paused, looking at her brother with one ear cocked, and Bahzell nodded. It had to have been record time, given that Chalghaz had been the peace hostage Churnazh had exchanged with Bahnak for Bahzell himself. The Navahkan princeling had been sent home when Bahzell "violated" his hostage bond, but that still meant Yarthag had been given no more than five or six months to suck up to him since his return.
"I'd been wondering how it was a man as could shift and dodge so well wasn't after being prince himself by now," Marglyth continued after a moment, "but if Sharna's poked a finger into Navahk's pie, it's in my mind that the answer's plain enough."
"You're probably right," Kaeritha put in. "Sharna's followers always prefer to work from behind the throne. People have a tendency to look much more carefully at princes and kings than at faceless advisers, and that extra layer of insulation makes it easier to hide their connections to the Scorpion."
"Like as not you and Marglyth have the right of it," Bahzell mused. "Still and all, I'd like to be hearing the rest of what Brandark has to tell."
"I don't know that I have much more," the Bloody Sword replied. "As Marglyth says, there's always gossip about scum like Harnak. But there were rumors-whispers, really-that he did more than just kill the people he took into the woods with him. No one wanted to say exactly what he did do, you understand, and I always assumed they were hinting at torture and such. But given that we know he was involved with Sharna's church, it could just be that torture was the least of what his victims had to worry about."
"That's true enough," Kaeritha said grimly, and Gharnal turned his head to cock a questioning eyebrow-and both ears-at her. "Not that torture wouldn't be bad enough, given the sort of 'games' Sharna and his filth enjoy," she told Bahzell's foster brother in a voice of frozen steel. "I've seen what they leave behind. They like flaying knives, and they know how to use them. They can keep a victim alive for hours-even days-as part of their demon summonings, and their high 'holy days' involve ceremonial cannibalism. Preferably raw, while the 'meal' is still alive… and while Sharna himself devours its soul." She gave a death's-head smile. "They call it 'The Feast of Sharing.' "
Bahzell heard someone gag behind him, and Gharnal blanched. Young or not, all his volunteers had seen the agony and butchery of war, but what Kaeritha had described went far beyond that. Not that any of them doubted her. In an odd sort of way, she'd found the quickest acceptance of any of Bahzell's companions once the Horse Stealers saw her working out. Sothoii war maids didn't wear armor, and her two-sword technique wasn't identical to the one they employed, but it was close enough to make Horse Stealers who'd actually run up against war maids wince in memory. That had sufficed to erase most of the doubts over the propriety of teaching women to be warriors, and her cheerful willingness to take on any one of them on the practice field had done the rest. As she had discovered sparring with Bahzell, she lacked the stature to meet a hradani-and especially a Horse Stealer hradani-on truly equal terms, despite her formidable size and strength for a human woman. But as Bahzell had discovered in those same sparring bouts, any hradani who approached her with anything but the utmost respect (and wariness) soon found himself flat on his back with her sword at his throat. Aside from Hurthang, not a single one of them had been able to best her in his initial bout with her, and that despite having watched her trounce his fellows ahead of him. Things changed once they grew used to her style, but even then she faced the bruises, sprains, and potential broken limbs of training against warriors twenty percent taller than she with absolute fearlessness… and still gave as good as she got despite her smaller size. The fact that (short ears aside) she was extremely good looking hadn't hurt either, Bahzell suspected, though none of the men who'd joined him would ever be rash enough to say so where she could hear them. And their innate respect for women was undoubtedly another factor.
Brandark, of course, suffered from the stigma of being a Bloody Sword, but at least he was a hradani. The Horse Stealers had a good notion of who he was and what his motives were-even the ones like Gharnal who hated him. But Vaijon was decidedly the odd man out. He was neither fish nor fowl: a stranger who was neither a hradani nor a woman, who had so far mastered only an extremely limited hradani vocabulary, and whose accent and mannerisms struck his hosts as… effete. His devotion to Bahzell was a point in his favor, and Bahzell was devoutly thankful his kinsmen had never met the old Vaijon, but they still regarded him with wariness. And, Bahzell suspected, with a certain hidden contempt. Tall and powerful as Vaijon was for a human, he looked like a callow stripling among Horse Stealers, which only emphasized his extreme youth, and the edge of surprise that a woman could trounce them-which had shocked them into accepting Kaeritha-didn't apply in his case.
Fortunately, Vaijon seemed to be handling it well-better, for example, than Brandark was. It was almost as though the young knight-probationer had decided his hosts' derision was another aspect of his penance for his own earlier contempt for the notion of a hradani champion of Tomanak . Which was fine, as far as it went, but Bahzell fervently hoped no one got around to pushing him too far. Vaijon might be reformed in many ways, but there were limits, and once someone stepped beyond them…
The Horse Stealer decided-again-not to think about that. Or about Brandark's losing his temper. It seemed Tomanak had neglected to mention more aspects of this champion business than he'd realized, and keeping the peace among this group ranked high on the list.
"All right, then," he said now, shaking loose from his thoughts, "it sounds to me as if the place we're hunting is after being somewhere in here." He tapped the same area Brandark had indicated. "All that's needful now is to go in and find it."
"And just how were you thinking to do that?" Hurthang asked quizzically. "It's a small enough space on a map, Bahzell, but I'm thinking you might be finding it just a mite bigger than that slogging about in snow and avoiding Churnazh's patrols!"
"Aye, it is," Bahzell agreed, "but I've a notion that I need only get close enough to the spot to be feeling it up here." This time he tapped his temple, and Hurthang's ears flicked skeptically.
"Feel it, is it? I'd not like to sound like a man as doubts your word, Bahzell, but that's one 'notion' as I'd like a bit more explanation of."
"I'll not blame you for that, but it's not something as I can truly explain." Bahzell frowned, rubbing his chin with one hand. "It's something that's come on me since I swore Sword Oath to himself," he went on after a moment. "Like the sword here."
He touched the huge sword leaning up against the table beside him, and one or two hands twitched as if their owners wanted to make signs of warding. He'd demonstrated his ability to summon the sword to prove his champion status. Most of his volunteers had been impressed, but many had remained skeptical, so he'd laid the blade down and invited any who wished to try to pick it up. Several of them-including Hurthang-had accepted the challenge… and almost ruptured themselves straining to lift it. When he'd picked it up effortlessly and extended it to Kaeritha, who took it from him easily, even the most doubtful had been forced to conclude that he truly was a champion of Tomanak.
What they still didn't know was why, after twelve centuries, Tomanak should suddenly decide he gave a copper kormak for what happened to hradani, but that was less important for the moment than the news that Sharna was at work among the Navahkans. Whatever Tomanak might or might not want of them, they knew only too well what Sharna desired, and they had no intention of letting him have it. For his part, Bahzell knew there was one other point he had not as yet mentioned that would be much more important to them than even Sharna's plans… once he got around to telling them about it. But he hadn't found quite the right time to bring it up. It was as though something-or, he thought darkly, someone-was holding him back until exactly the right moment.
"Aye, well, I can be seeing the sword, Bahzell," Hurthang said almost apologetically, "but this other business-this notion of 'feeling' things-" He twitched his shoulders in a shrug, and Bahzell smiled bleakly.
"It wasn't so very easy for me to be accepting, so I'll not say I'm surprised to hear as how others find it a mite difficult. Yet it's true enough. Kerry?" He looked at Kaeritha for support, and she frowned down into her own ale.
"Bahzell's probably right, Hurthang," she said finally. "No two champions are precisely alike, and none of us do things exactly the same way. This particular task was laid on Bahzell, and I have no idea just how he'll be guided or helped-or if he'll be guided or helped-in its completion, and there are limits on the knowledge we can be given, as well. I suppose the best way to put it is that Tomanak can usually confirm things for us, but He won't reach down and lead us by the hand when we're trying to figure them out in the first place. That's our job, not His, and as a rule, I think that's how it ought to be. He's forging us to be His blades and to think and act for ourselves, after all, not to be His helpless suppliants… or slaves."
She paused, and Hurthang nodded slowly. However little use most hradani might have for deities, that, at least, was an outlook they understood. Their own harsh lives taught them to stand on their own, and the one thing for which every hradani felt contempt was weakness. Among their folk, physical strength could be taken almost for granted, but internal strength was another matter… and a much more important one.
"In my own case," Kaeritha went on, "it's something I see, like an aura or a light that guides me once I come close enough. For Bahzell, it would probably be something else, and I wouldn't presume to try to put it into words for him. But if he says he'll 'feel' something, then I'd have to say he will. When the time comes."
"Umph." Hurthang shoved himself back in his chair, scratching his nose, then shrugged once more. "All right, then, Bahzell. I suppose I've done dafter things in my time than follow a man as says he'll 'feel' the enemy when he gets close enough to 'em. Not that I can be calling any of them to mind just now, you understand, but if you'll be giving me a few days to think, I've no doubt at least one will be coming to me."
"No doubt," Bahzell agreed politely, and laughter rumbled about the map room. But then it died as one of the others spoke up in a voice which held no humor at all.
"Well, aye, I'd have to be agreeing with Hurthang so far as Sharna's concerned," he said, "but as for this business of other gods and demons and such-!"
Bahzell turned to look at the speaker, but the young man refused to look away. Instead, he met Bahzell's eyes and shook his head with dogged hradani stubbornness.
"It's grateful I am to you for warning us what's toward, and no mistake. Aye, and that Tomanak will help kick Sharna's arse out of our business, as well. But I'm thinking as how he's his own reasons for wanting Demon Breath gone, and meaning no disrespect, Bahzell, I'm not so very inclined to be welcoming Scale Balancer in in his place."
No one spoke up in agreement, but Bahzell felt it in the others' silence.
"I'll not speak a word against your own choice," the critic went on, "but this I'll tell you plain, I've seen no reason at all, at all, to be welcoming any god in as my lord and master, and it just might be that one reason Tomanak's so all-fired eager to help us is to be changing our minds about that. But the fact is there's not a one among all the 'Gods of Light' whose been after doing a single damned thing for hradani since the Fall."
He fell silent, and someone coughed into a fist behind him. The silence hovered tensely, and Bahzell looked around the gathered members of his clan with level eyes. Then he nodded slowly, and stood. The two men closest behind him had to step back to make room, and he heard someone curse as a boot heel came down on an unsuspecting toe, but he didn't even turn to look. He simply reached down for his sword, the symbol of his champion's status, and held it up, hilt uppermost, and the crowd parted before him like water before a ship's prow as he made his way to the hearth. He put his back to the mantle, feeling the fire's heat on his back and calves, and faced them all, still holding his sword before him.
"I do be hearing you, Chav^ak," he said then, addressing the young warrior who had spoken as formally as a chieftain in a clan's great conclave, "and you've my respect for speaking your mind plain and unvarnished. Aye, and so far as that goes, it wasn't so very long ago I'd've been saying the selfsame things. Come to that, I did say 'em, and a mite louder than you just have, when himself and I first stood face-to-face."
"And how did he answer you?" Chav^ak asked.
"He didn't," Bahzell said simply. "Not then, for he'd seen plain enough as how it would take something stronger than words to be changing a hradani's mind." He smiled faintly. "We've a way of being on the stubborn side, from time to time, or so I've heard tell."
He twitched his ears, and several members of his audience chuckled. But then his own smile faded, and he went on quietly.
"Well, he found something stronger. Leastways, I'm thinking as how most folk might be seeing a demon in that wise. But there was a bribe he could have been offering me long before that, a secret he might've told, if it so happened he'd been minded to buy my oath. But himself wouldn't bribe me, Chav^ak. He won't be bribing you either, come to that, yet I'm thinking there's something you should know-something himself gave me as a gift, with neither price nor strings attached-that all hradani should be knowing, Horse Stealer and Bloody Sword alike."
He smiled briefly at Brandark, surrounded by his hereditary enemies as he sat still by the map table, and then drew a deep breath.
"You see, lads, there was a reason himself was after choosing a hradani champion after twelve hundred mortal long years. Come to that, I've no doubt there are more things than one as he has it in mind for me to do, but telling you what himself told me is the task as will mean the most to all our folk, for it's about the Rage."
Sudden silence slammed down. The tiniest crackle of the hearth fire and the sigh of wind across the roof carried clearly in the stillness, and Bahzell smiled crookedly in bitter understanding.
"We're all knowing who we've to thank for the Rage," he told them, his deep voice sweeping over them like a quiet sea, "but there's something we none of us ever knew until himself told Brandark and me the truth. When the dark wizards in Kontovar set the Rage on us to make us fight and die for them, their spell went into the bone and blood of us. For twelve long centuries we've passed it, father to son to grandson to great-grandson, and it's the Rage as truly makes the other Races of Man hate and fear us. But the Rage we have now, it's not the one as the scum who gave it to us meant us to have."
Still no one spoke, but he saw ears rising and foreheads furrowing as his audience wondered where he meant to go, and he raised his sword higher.
"I swear this to you upon this sword," he said, and he didn't raise his voice, yet it carried like thunder to them all, and his eyes flashed. "The old Rage exists yet, and will for years to come, but it's after changing at last. When we call the Rage to us-when we summon it rather than let it be taking us against our will-then we control it."
Most of the others looked confused, but he saw the start of understanding-and a wild, burning fire of hope-on some of the faces gazing back at him, and he nodded.
"Tomanak himself has said it. The Rage can take and master us against our will only if we let it, but we can be taking it-aye, and using it-as we will and need from this day on. Not as a curse that makes animals and less of us, but as a tool, a weapon as answers to our hand and our will and makes us more than we are! That's the reason himself was after claiming a hradani champion-to be telling all hradani that after twelve hundred years, our fate lies in our hands again at last, and not the hands of the Phrobus-taken wizards who cursed us all!"
He stopped speaking, and the silence was deafening. No one spoke, as if each of them feared it was all a dream which his own voice might break, taking away the fleeting hope that the impossible might somehow be true. But then, at last, Hurthang Tharakson rose slowly. The others flowed aside to give him room, and he walked very slowly down the length of the map room to stand facing Bahzell.
"Is it true?" he whispered. "D'you swear to me it's true, Bahzell?"
"I do that," Bahzell told him quietly. "By my life, by my father's honor, by the clan blood we share, and by the Sword of Tomanak Itself."
Hurthang stared at him, his face white and strained, and then steel whispered on leather as he took his axe from his back. He held it for a long, still moment, and then he knelt at his cousin's feet, laid the axe before him on the floor, and bent his head.
"Then Chav^ak is wrong, and I see indeed why Tomanak was seeking you, Bahzell Bahnakson," he said, the words deeply formal despite the emotion that choked his voice, "and I owe you more than ever man could hope to repay. For first you saved my Farmah's life, and then you sent her here for me to meet and love, and then you slew the black-hearted bastard who hurt her, and now you've bidden me join you to take vengeance on the like of him, and for that alone would I owe you my life. But for this-" He drew a deep, shuddering breath. "For telling my people this, I owe you more than life, and I beg that you will be taking me as your charkanahd, in the ancient way of our folk."
Someone drew a hissing breath. The oath of charkanahd was the most solemn any hradani could swear. Some foreign scholars, who thought the ancient word was purely hradani, translated it simply as "armsman," but they were wrong. Other scholars, more familiar with the dead languages of fallen Kontovar, could have told them that it meant literally "death sworn," but only the hradani still remembered what it had once implied. What it still implied and meant to them.
Hurthang had just offered Bahzell all he was-all he could ever be. Not simply his service, and not even simply his sword in battle. Those things came with the oath of charkanahd, but they were the easy part, the reason "scholars" who knew no better used "armsman" as its equivalent. True charkanahd cut far deeper, for it superseded all other oaths, all other loyalties. It renounced any other claim upon the loyalty of the man who swore it, and he gave his liege lord his very life. More than that, he gave his lord the moment of his own death-the right and power to choose the place and time at which he would lay down the life which no longer belonged to him, without question or hesitation.
But Bahzell only rested a hand gently on his cousin's bowed head and shook his own.
"No, Hurthang," he said softly. "You're not owing me a single thing, for whatever I did, I did because I chose to, and because I couldn't just be turning away and pretending I didn't know what was needful to do, and I've no need for charkanahd. But I do need sword brothers, and if I can't be taking your oath, I know someone as can."
Hurthang looked up, and his eyes went huge, for a corona of blue brilliance crackled about Bahzell. It clung to him, outlining him in azure lightning, and his voice was no longer his alone. There was another timbre to it, deeper even than his own, and powerful, like the beat of heavy cavalry charging through a battle dawn. All around the map room, men sank to their knees before the majesty flowing out of him, and even as they knelt, they knew it was not truly Bahzell Bahnakson they beheld. Or, rather, that it was not solely him. And as that realization ran through them, they also realized that all he had told them-about Sharna, about his own ability to sense the Dark God's lair and seek it out, and above all about the Rage-was true. Bone-deep, unquestionably true. As Hurthang, they recognized in that instant the enormity of the gift Bahzell-and Tomanak -had given them. Of the vast change which had come into their lives, and the fact that nothing would ever be the same again.
"I'm thinking I see another reason himself was sending me here now," Bahzell said, still in that voice which was his and yet was not. "I'll not take your oaths for myself, Sword Brothers, but it's in my mind that any chapter of Tomanak's Order has to be starting somewhere." He smiled, and a ripple of laughter like joyous trumpets seemed to shiver and dance behind his words. "No doubt there's many a fine lord will be a mite upset when he learns as how himself's been and created an entire chapter of blood-thirsty barbarian hradani, Brothers, but they'd best be getting over it as quick as ever they can, for I've the strangest notion there's worse to come for 'em than that!"
Laughter answered him from the kneeling warriors, breathless and yet somehow reverent, and he looked out over them.
"Will you swear Sword Oath to Tomanak , as his warriors and members of his Order, Brothers?" he asked, and steel whispered and sang throughout the map room as every Horse Stealer warrior in it drew sword or axe and held it up before him.