"Somehow, I don't think your father quite had it in mind for you to swear in an entire chapter of the Order," Brandark said with a lurking smile. He spoke quietly, in small puffs of breath steam, as he and Bahzell lay under the low branches of a fir thicket. Fifty-four other hradani-and two humans-lay hidden about them, but any observer might have been excused for not realizing it. Even Brandark had been unsettled by the discovery of how easily half a hundred huge Horse Stealers had simply disappeared into the snow-struck woods. Granted, the foggy morning's gloomy overcast helped, yet it still seemed impossible. But, then, he'd never been part of a Horse Stealer raiding party on the Wind Plain, either.
"I'd not be so very sure of that, little man," Bahzell murmured back absently, eyes scanning the silent trees. "He's a canny one, my da, and it's in my mind he'd've seen it coming before ever he gave me leave to ask for volunteers. Besides, this way he's after getting credit as the first 'patron' of the Order amongst hradani if things go well, without risking the blame if it should happen they work out badly. Come to that, he's seen it set up so the Order won't be being 'his,' and that's no small thing if I'm to get the rest of our folk to believe himself is neutral and the Order's more than just a tool of Hurgrum."
"Really?" Brandark reached under the hood of the white smock which he, like every other member of the raiding party wore, to rub his truncated ear, then grimaced. "You're probably right," he acknowledged. "He's a deep one, your father, and somehow I've got the feeling he never does anything for a single reason."
"Which is the very reason he'll soon be after sitting on Churnazh's throne," Bahzell agreed equably. "But-"
He chopped off abruptly, and Brandark reached for his sword as he squirmed around to look in the same direction. But it was only Urach, Hurthang's chosen scout, skiing quickly and quietly back towards them out of the fog. He looked around searchingly, and Bahzell raised one hand in a small wave. Tiny as it was, the gesture caught Urach's attention, and he moved quickly towards Bahzell and Brandark.
"Well?" Bahzell asked quietly, and Urach grimaced.
"It's as Lord Brandark said, Bahz- Milord. There's a road of some sort up ahead. It's not after being much of one-more of a trail, really-but there's tracks enough to mark its course plain. Not many. I'm thinking it's naught but a pair of horses-not more than three, at the most-and they were only after going the one way. They've not come back yet. And as for the trail itself, it winds off to the north a bit, and it's twisty as a Bloody Sword's mind. Ah, no offense, Lord Brandark!"
"None taken," Brandark said dryly. Urach eyed him doubtfully, then ducked his head with a grin.
"Any road, Milord, it's after creeping about like a snake with the ague, and it clings to low ground like a leech. I've not scouted much along it, but if you were to be asking me, I'd have to say as how whoever planned it wasn't wishful for anyone to be seeing him use it."
"Um." Bahzell rubbed his chin, then nodded. "Well enough, Urach-and well done, too. It's grateful I'd be if you'd tell the same to Hurthang-he's over yonder, by that dead oak-and fetch him back to me here when you've done."
"Aye, Milord!" Urach hastened off, and Brandark cocked a sardonic eyebrow.
" 'Bahz- Milord', is it? My! What formality for a batch of unwashed Horse Stealers! Does Tomanak know about this sudden elevation of yours?"
"I'm wondering how you'd look with your mouth stuffed full of snow?" Bahzell murmured thoughtfully. "Like as not you'd be quieter, anyway."
"My, my, my. We are feeling touchy, aren't we?" Brandark needled, but Bahzell only grinned.
"It's in my mind they'll get over it soon enough, little man. But just this minute, they're still not that all-fired sure just what it is they've let themselves in for. So if it makes a lad like Urach feel a bit more proper to be calling me 'Milord' for a bit, I'm thinking I can stand the embarrassment."
"No doubt. But you do realize you've made me even more of the odd man out, don't you?" Brandark demanded. Bahzell eyed him quizzically, and he sighed. "I was already a Bloody Sword-which, if you'll recall, isn't exactly the safest thing to be around a murderous lot of Horse Stealers-but at least I had company, since Vaijon and Kerry weren't what you might call Horse Stealers themselves. But then you had to go and swear the lot of them into the Order of Tomanak , which Vaijon and Kerry are members of. Which just happens to leave me as the sole participant in this little expedition who isn't one of Scale Balancer's hearty minions."
"D'you know, I believe you've a point there. But don't let it be bothering you. Just you be keeping close, and we'll look after you right and tight anyway. Why, you'll be safer than if you were after lying in your mother's arms."
Brandark opened his mouth to reply, then shut it with a click as Hurthang slid under the firs beside them and jerked his head back the way Urach had come.
"Tracks, hey?" he said softly. "Now what would you be thinking could bring honest folk out into the middle of these godsforsaken woods this time of year, Bahzell?"
"What? Not 'Milord'?" Brandark jibed. Hurthang darted him a quick look, then chuckled and reached across Bahzell to punch the Bloody Sword on the shoulder.
"I can see why himself here is after being so attached to you, little man. You're enough to be keeping any man humble, aren't you just?"
"I try," Brandark admitted. "It's a hard task, mind you, but someone has to do it. And at least Bahzell gives me plenty of material to work with."
"Now that'll be enough out of the both of you," Bahzell said austerely as Hurthang smothered a laugh. "We've more important things to be thinking on here."
"Aye, that's true enough," Hurthang agreed. "But given the rumors Brandark was after sharing with us, I've little doubt as how Urach's trail will be taking us where it is we're wishful to go." He narrowed his eyes at Bahzell. "Have you felt anything yet?"
"No, not yet. Or, that's to say I don't think I've felt aught-other than a bit of nervous flutter, as you might say. Still and all, I'm thinking you're right enough, and it's grateful I'll be if you'll take your section up ahead there. I'll follow along on your heels, and Gharnal's lot can watch our backs."
"Fair enough." Hurthang nodded and squirmed back out into the open, waving for the other thirteen men of his section to join him. White-smocked Horse Stealers appeared suddenly, blending out of the most improbable bits and pieces of concealment, and all fourteen of them pushed off in a quiet hiss of skis.
Bahzell let them get perhaps fifty yards ahead, then crawled out of his own cover. Brandark followed, and Vaijon and Kaeritha joined them in short order. The humans looked weary, but they'd managed to keep up, and Bahzell knew they'd earned the admiration of his Horse Stealers in the process. His people took their own endurance for granted, but they knew other races didn't share it… and that however tired Vaijon or Kaeritha might have become-however hard they'd panted, or however soaked with sweat their faces had been-the humans had matched them league for league.
Fortunately, Bahzell had slowed the pace once they reached the wooded area Brandark had identified as their likely hunting ground. Haste was the enemy of stealth, and at the moment caution was more important than speed could ever have been. The peace treaty between Horse Stealers and Bloody Swords still held-technically, at least. But even though hradani tended to be surprisingly proper sticklers for things like formal declarations of war, they were also masters of the occasional preemptive raid, and unlike many people, they had no objection to launching those raids in winter. Which meant Churnazh had to be keeping a closer watch than usual for Horse Stealer trespassers in his realm… and that didn't even consider anything Sharna's lot might be up to. The fact that slowing down had allowed his human friends to catch their breath was a useful bonus, but Bahzell's real purpose had been to avoid blundering into some sentry or trap his enemies might have set.
The rest of his section joined him, and he waved them forward, he and his friends moving off on Hurthang's heels at the center of their loose formation. Behind them, Gharnal began beckoning for his own people to form up, and Bahzell let automatic, trained reactions carry him along while he half-closed his eyes and concentrated.
He hadn't been entirely honest with Hurthang. Or, more precisely, he'd understated his own speculations to be on the cautious side. Privately, he was convinced he was picking up a faint, unpleasant sensation, almost like something stirring in the dark, from the north. Now his head turned, nostrils flaring as if to scent the air, and his lips drew back from his teeth in a snarl he wasn't even aware of, for the sensation was stronger than it had been, and strengthening by the moment.
"D'you think as how Sharna's lot can be sensing us as well as we can sense them?" he asked Kaeritha quietly, and she shrugged.
"I don't know. I suppose Demon Breath has the equivalent of his own champions, but I've no idea at all what capabilities they might have." She frowned, arcing away from Bahzell to pass on the far side of a tree and then coming back, and shrugged. "I know our champions have wandered into ambushes from time to time. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. As far as I know, though, it's usually when they don't expect trouble." She grimaced. "I suppose no one could be ambushed in the proper sense of the word if they were 'expecting trouble,' of course, but that wasn't what I meant."
"What you were meaning was that the champions in question weren't after trying to sense their enemies because they'd been given no other reason to think as how they might be there," Bahzell said, and she nodded.
"Exactly. And that being the case, I've always assumed we can do the same thing to the other side under similar conditions. Of course, Sharna may well have told them we were coming. He did try to ambush us in the Empire, after all."
"Aye." It was Bahzell's turn to grimace. "Well, the best we can do is all we can be doing, and we'll just have to be hoping it's enough."
He looked up, beckoned, and another of his men hurried forward.
"Aye, B- Milord?"
"Take yourself on ahead there, Torlahn. Tell Hurthang I'm after being certain now. There's a pocket of pus and nastiness up ahead, and I'm wishful he should go slow and easy, for they may've guessed we're coming."
Torlahn nodded and pushed off with his ski poles. He faded quickly into the fog, and Brandark looked around with a jaundiced eye.
"I don't want to sound as if I'm complaining," he observed, "but it's just occurred to me that fifty-eight men-well, fifty-seven men and one woman-could find themselves just a bit outnumbered by a nest of demon-worshiping filth on its own ground."
"That just occurred to you now?" Vaijon asked in a hoarse whisper, surveying the same woods, and shook his head in disbelief.
"I'm a city boy," Brandark replied with dignity, "not a Horse Stealer. I'm not the expert on raids and sneaking about in the woods." He sniffed and jabbed one of his ski poles at Bahzell. "That's the management for this little operation, my boy."
"And a good thing, too," Bahzell rumbled, "for the two of you are after carrying on like little old ladies in a brothel! We're after trying to sneak up on 'em, as even this Bloody Sword knows, and I'd take it kindly if the both of you would be keeping your jaws still for just a bit. And as for being outnumbered, well, I'm doubtful somehow that Sharna and his lot would be wanting to keep a lot of men under arms out here. Even a Bloody Sword might spot such as that-though I'll grant you he'd need to be walking right into 'em before he stopped chattering long enough to be taking notice!"
"There's no need to be rude," Brandark said with even more dignity. He and Vaijon exchanged slightly strained grins, and then the two of them concentrated on moving as smoothly and silently as possible.
That sick sense of something putrid and vile grew stronger and stronger as Bahzell concentrated upon it. The chaffering with Brandark had distracted him from it for a few moments, but now it was back and worse than ever, and his ears flattened under his hood. He glanced at Kaeritha and made a small gesture for her to retain her position at the center of his section, then pushed ahead to overtake Hurthang. He wasn't certain why it suddenly seemed so urgent for him to do that, but he didn't question the feeling, either.
One of Hurthang's men saw him and hissed a warning that brought the entire section to a halt. Hurthang himself loomed up out of the fog, eyebrows arched and ears cocked as Bahzell caught up with him. Bahzell started to speak, then swayed, gagging as a carrion reek seemed to catch at the back of his throat like filthy hands. He caught himself on his ski poles and shook his head violently, then spat into the snow.
"What?" Hurthang asked, his voice little more than a rumbling thread.
"We're close," Bahzell said equally quietly. "What's ahead?"
"Not a lot," Hurthang replied. "A clearing of sorts, and a valley. It's an ugly place, too. I'd not set foot in it under other circumstances, and that I'll tell you plain, Bahzell."
"And why not?"
"That's more than I can say, to speak truth. Maybe it's naught but the fact that I know what it is we're hunting. That's cause enough for any man to be feeling a bit hesitant, I'd guess. And it's after being the sort of nasty, narrow, twisting place I hate. In fact, it's narrow enough I'd almost think as how the tracks up and vanish right into a hillside to look at it, but it must be there's a way around it on the far side as we just aren't able to see from here."
"I'd not count on that," Bahzell said grimly, for a sudden stab of certainty had gone through him like a knife the instant his cousin mentioned a hillside. "There's no way around that hill, Hurthang. The bastards are after being inside it."
"Inside?" Hurthang sounded dubious, and Bahzell nodded.
"Aye. Kilthan had the right of it when he said as how Sharna's lot hide themselves underground, and I can be feeling some kind of trickery even from here."
"Wizardry?" Hurthang hissed, but Bahzell shook his head quickly.
"No, not that, but like it. I'm thinking it's a bit of Sharna himself, spread out so as to be tricking minds and eyes to keep us from seeing what's really there. And I'd not be surprised if it's the real reason the place is after looking 'ugly' to you, too. He'd not want to encourage folk to come right in on his… people."
"Then just how is it we're supposed to be getting at them?"
"Well, as to that, it's surprised I'll be if Kerry and I betwixt us can't convince that little bit of Sharna to be moving aside," Bahzell replied, and bared his teeth in a vicious grin. "Old Demon Breath's scared to death of himself, and I'm thinking that when a pair of champions come calling all unannounced, and bring himself along with 'em when they knock on the door, that door will be after opening."
Hurthang looked less than totally convinced, but he nodded and waved his men into concealment to wait while Bahzell went back for Kaeritha and the rest of the party. Then the two champions, accompanied only by Vaijon, Brandark, and Hurthang, moved to the very edge of the woods and peered out into the foggy late morning light.
As Hurthang had said, the woods gave way to a narrow valley between brooding hills. The tracks they'd followed this far snaked out into that valley, looking somehow furtive and lost, and seemed to vanish straight into a rough, almost vertical hillside. But the scene didn't look quite the same to all of them, and Bahzell heard Kaeritha-and Vaijon-suck in sharp breaths even as the hillside began to waver like wind-struck water to his own vision. Details were hard to make out, but his jaw clenched as he caught the likeness of a huge scorpion carved out of the rock above an arched opening that was somehow… wrong. He couldn't put his finger on exactly what made that arch look subtly perverted and diseased. After all, how could a simple opening in the stone look "perverted"? The concept made no sense, and yet that was the only word which fitted that obscene, waiting mouth under the protective claws of the scorpion.
"What is it?" Hurthang asked quickly as he caught his cousin's expression.
"What we came for," Bahzell replied grimly. He tore his eyes from the rippling hillside to scan the other slopes, looking for any sign of guard posts or sentries. There were none, and he supposed that made sense. Even knowing exactly what they sought, neither Hurthang nor Brandark could see a thing but blank stone. Coupled with the sense of aversion Hurthang had felt for the entire valley-and which Bahzell felt, as well, when he let himself-that offered Sharna's followers almost perfect concealment, and posting sentries would actually be more likely to attract attention, not less.
But Bahzell knew what was hidden there, and his belly tightened as he sensed a dark, malevolent presence inside that hill. Not Sharna himself, though there was a trace of the dark god present. No one who'd ever sensed him could mistake that skin-crawling shudder of pure evil for anything else. But there was something more, another presence, infinitely weaker than Sharna's potential power but enormously stronger than any mortal creature. He glanced at Kaeritha and Vaijon, and their expressions showed they sensed it, too. But they looked perplexed, uncertain as to just what it was they felt, for unlike him, they had never faced one of Sharna's greater demons.
He drew a deep breath, then sank back into the cover of the forest edge and waved his friends in close.
"All right, then," he said softly. "We've found what we came for, but I'm thinking we've a real fight on our hands." He darted a sharp glance at Kaeritha and Vaijon. "The two of you are after sensing something else in there, too, aren't you, now?"
"Yes," Kaeritha said shortly, and Vaijon nodded.
"Well, I've sensed its like before-and so have you, Brandark." He flicked a look at his friend. "In the Shipwood."
"Phrobus!" Brandark whispered. "D'you mean there's a bloody demon in there?!"
"And why not? Sharna is after being their patron, and as Kerry said naught but a moment ago, he's after knowing we're coming, whatever the bastards inside that hill may know or guess."
"A demon?" Hurthang shook his head. "That sounds like being just a mite much for our lads to handle, Bahzell."
"Aye, it does that. And I'll not say I'm looking forward to it myself," Bahzell admitted. "Still and all, it's a pleasure I've had before, and if I'm not all aquiver with eagerness, at least I've another champion to back me this time. You and the lads be leaving the demon to Kerry and me, Hurthang. There'll be enough others in yonder for you lot to be dealing with."
"Are you sure about this?" Kaeritha asked quietly. "I mean, you're the only one of us who's actually ever faced a demon, but I've always heard the worst possible place to take one on is underground."
"I've no doubt of that at all, at all," Bahzell said grimly, "and I'll tell you true, it was footwork as much as bladework got me off whole last time. But more even than that, it was himself. He was with me when I was needing him worst, and I've no doubt at all as how he'll be with both of us-with all of us-" he amended, waving one hand to encompass their entire party "-this time, as well."
"I don't either," Vaijon said, and smiled suddenly at the two champions. "And if He is with us, what more do we need?"
"Oh, I'd say a bit of courage, a good sword, some muscle, and more than one man's fair share of luck," Bahzell said judiciously, with a smile of his own. "Still and all, you've put your hand on the meat of it, Vaijon. And all we need or no, it's a damned sight more than anyone on t'other side is likely to be having!"
He paused a moment, looking around the circle of his friends' faces, seeing his own fear-and he was afraid, he admitted-and determination in their expressions, then nodded. No man could ask for better companions. He would take his chances with Tomanak and these people any day.
"All right, then," he said. "Here's what I'm thinking to do… ."