The trip back to Hurgrum took several more days than the outward journey had. The need to transport their wounded (and their dead) would have slowed them anyway, but the real problem was their prisoners. There were only thirteen of them, including Tharnatus, but every one of them knew he was a dead man when he finally reached Hurgrum. The Horse Stealers kept them bound at all times and still had to guard each of them like hawks. Even so, one of them managed to saw through the ropes binding his legs with a sharp-edged stone he'd acquired somewhere and made a break for it late on the second day. The light was none too good, but he made less than seventy-five yards before an arbalest bolt tore through him. Unlike their own dead, the Horse Stealers let him lie where he had fallen for the scavengers, and none of his erstwhile companions uttered a word of complaint.
Once Bahzell was certain he and his followers had gotten away cleanly, he took time out to see to Vaijon and Kaeritha properly. On examination, it was obvious Kaeritha was recovering on her own. Aside from an atrocious headache, a few fresh cuts, including one which was going to leave yet another scar on her cheek, and some spectacular bruises, her only lingering difficulty was her right eye's reluctance to focus properly, and she waved off Bahzell's offer to heal her.
"I'm not so fragile as all that! Besides, Tomanak would get irritated if I ran around asking Him to take care of every little ache and pain for me."
"If you're certain about it, then," Bahzell said, and she nodded, then winced and pressed a hand to her temple.
"I'm certain. Mind you, I won't complain if you order me to ride in the sled for another day or two."
"So that's the way of it! You're thinking as how you've an excuse to lie about like a lady to the manor born while we're towing your lazy carcass back to Hurgrum, hey?"
"Of course," she replied smugly, and curled up like a cat under the thick rug covering the sled. "Wake me when we get there," she said with an elaborate yawn, and he laughed, patted her shoulder, and turned his attention to Vaijon.
He found the knight-probationer sitting up and practicing his Hurgrumese with the three Horse Stealers who had been taking it in turns to tow his sled. His accent was still atrocious, and the hradani were teasing him unmercifully about it. The old Vaijon would no doubt have felt mortally insulted-especially when his accent turned the Hurgrumese for "mud" into something much more organic-but the new one only laughed along with them, and Bahzell watched appreciatively for several seconds before he interrupted.
"It's sorry I am to be breaking in on this serious-minded language lesson," he said finally, "but I'm thinking as how the youngster here might be wishful to have his arm healed. Unless, of course, he's some objection to my 'wasting' healing on such minor bumps and sprains like her ladyship yonder?"
He twitched his head at Kaeritha as he spoke, and the lump under the rug stirred.
"I heard that!" it warned him. "And you'll pay for it the next time I get your hairy backside in a training salle, Milord Champion!"
Vaijon laughed and shook his head.
"I've no objection at all, Milord. I hope this isn't going to get too habit forming, though. Somehow you always seem to be patching up broken arms for me."
"Do I, then?" Bahzell said with a smile, dropping down to sit beside him and ease the splinted arm out of its sling. "Well, I'm thinking I might just be done with such as that, lad, for it's in my mind you won't be after needing any more of 'em broken." He paused and looked Vaijon squarely in the eye. "And speaking of arms, and in case I wasn't after saying it at the time, Sir Vaijon," he said quietly, "it's grateful I am for your aid and the strength of your arm. You did well, and your courage was all that Sir Charrow-aye, or Tomanak himself-could have been asking of you."
Vaijon blushed fiery red, but the hradani who'd teased him earlier murmured agreement and approval. The young man blushed even darker and looked around as if searching frantically for some other topic of discussion, and Bahzell took pity on him.
"Now let's be looking at this arm of yours," he said briskly. "And as you're a special friend and all, I'll not be charging you more than half my normal surgeon's bill."
Bahzell sent Gharnal ahead with a complete report for his father while the rest of his party was still a full day out of Hurgrum. He wasn't at all surprised when messengers from Prince Bahnak appeared early the next day with a request which stopped just short of an order to be as inconspicuous as possible when they entered the city. With that in mind, he timed their travel so that night had fallen by the time they reached Hurgrum. The weather had turned bitterly cold again in one of the sudden, seesaw weather shifts which usually marked the end of winter in that part of Norfressa, and the plunging temperatures had driven virtually everyone inside with the sunset, so their late arrival allowed them to reach the palace without attracting any attention.
Bahnak himself, with Barodahn and Thankhar, Bahzell's next older brother, awaited them, and the prince threw his arms around his youngest son in a crushing hug.
"I'd not guessed all you were off to face when I bid you farewell, boy," he said quietly, "and it's glad I am to see you home hale and whole." He broke the hug, then stood back and eyed Bahzell critically. "Gharnal was after giving me all the juicy details you'd seen fit to be leaving out of your own letter. For example, you'd not mentioned a word at all, at all, about fighting demons in your report."
"Well, as to that, it was Vaijon did the thing in," Bahzell replied with a shrug.
"Aye, Gharnal said as much. But it's just as happy I'd be if you could see your way to avoiding such little affairs in the future. Not-" Bahnak raised a deprecatory hand "-that I'm after complaining, mind, and I'm sure you'll know your own business best. But like as not your mother'll be just a mite upset if demons or devils or such were to be biting pieces out of you after all the time she spent bearing and raising you. Mothers are like that, you know, and I'd sooner she wasn't after taking it out on me."
"I'll be bearing that in mind," Bahzell assured him with a grin. But then the grin faded, and he turned back to the door through which he'd entered. His companions were quietly carrying in stiff, blanket-wrapped bodies, and he shook his head.
"I was after losing the best part of a third of my men, Father," he said quietly.
"From all Gharnal said, it's lucky you were to lose so few," Bahnak said, equally quietly, and Barodahn and Thankhar nodded agreement. "I've not told their families yet," the prince went on after a moment. "I'd no idea how you and your brothers-" he nodded to the rest of the raiding party, not his other sons "-would be feeling such should be handled. And, truth to tell, I'd a few other motives of my own." He waited until Bahzell turned to look at him once more, then smiled humorlessly.
"What you've done needed doing, and no mistake, but I'm thinking it's likely to be like kicking a hornets' nest when word of it's after getting out. And it will get out. Come to that, I suppose it should be gotten out, and the sooner the better, but the other princes will all be having their own reasons to think the worst of my involvement-especially when they hear as how Chalghaz was after getting caught up in it. And since all that's the case, I'd take it kindly if you and Hurthang and perhaps your friends Kaeritha and Brandark would be sitting down with Marglyth and me to thrash out just how we'd best go about letting that word out."
Rumors of the raiders' return began circulating with the dawn, and they grew more extreme with each generation of whispers. No one outside Bahnak's immediate family and the warriors who'd actually carried out the raid knew that Bahzell's volunteers, to the man, had sworn their swords to Tomanak's service. As far as that was concerned, only a handful of people had the least idea what the raid itself had been about.
The least fantastic explanation bandied about was that Bahnak had dispatched a party to burn several Navahkan frontier posts without issuing a formal declaration of war. No one was quite certain why he should have done such a thing, although the darker tales suggested it had been intended as the first step in a complex strategy designed to push Churnazh into counterattacking. The idea, apparently, was that Bahnak would deny his men had ever set foot in Navahk and brand Churnazh's claims as lies intended to justify Churnazh's "unprovoked" aggression against him. That was bad enough, but there were even rumors the prince had ordered a sneak attack on Navahk itself, guided by Bahzell (who'd put the knowledge of the city he'd gained while a hostage there to good effect), for the express purpose of murdering Churnazh and his sons in their beds. Exactly how less than three score Horse Stealers could have carried out such a mission in an entire city full of Bloody Swords was left to the imagination of the audience.
In many respects, the rumors' possibility or impossibility meant very little. While many Hurgrumese were shocked by the notion that their prince might have so violated custom as to open hostilities without first declaring his intention to, they were delighted by the reports that he'd done so successfully. On the other hand, most of the ambassadors to his court could scarcely have cared less whether or not the attack-whatever it had been-had succeeded. Those who served Churnazh and his allies were furious that Bahnak had violated their peace treaties without first bidding Churnazh proper defiance, and those of Bahnak's allies were equally furious that he should have done so without first warning them. After all, such actions could well drag their princes into a war right alongside him, and he hadn't even discussed it with them. That sort of high-handed action would not sit well with any hradani warlord, and the arrogance of it might very well destroy his newborn union of Horse Stealers at the very outset.
Claims, protests, rumors and counterrumors flew that morning as friendly and hostile envoys alike worked themselves into something very like a frenzy. But what not one of those ambassadors suspected was that Bahnak himself had taken great care to ensure that they heard the juiciest possible versions of events from his own agents.
Bahzell had looked at his father in disbelief when he admitted responsibility for spreading the tales, but Bahnak had only smiled crookedly.
"Well, of course I did, boy-and a great help Marglyth was, too."
"But why, Father?"
"The word was bound to be getting out, whatever we did or didn't do," Bahzell's sister explained patiently, "and there's going to be some as aren't likely to accept the truth whatever happens. Some will have reasons of their own not to be taking Father's word officially, no matter what they might be thinking in their own minds, for they're after serving Churnazh and his allies."
She paused until Bahzell nodded his understanding, then shrugged.
"So when Father and I discussed it, it came to me that the greater the difference betwixt what they were thinking had happened and what they later learned had truly happened, the better all 'round. The more accusations-aye, and the wilder-Churnazh's lot can be sucked into making, the sharper the truth will bite them back when it's after coming out. And the greater the shock when Father proves Demon Breath's doings in Navahk, the more likely it is the most of the ambassadors will be believing him."
Bahzell turned to give his father a very hard look indeed, and Bahnak shrugged.
"Aye, aye. I know what you're after thinking, boy. Here's the old man again, dipping his finger into the pie and scheming how best he can make use of it. But politics are politics, and whether you'll have it or no, this Order of Tomanak you're after creating's such as to pitchfork you right out amongst 'em. I'll not deny it's in my own mind to wring every advantage I can from the affair, but just you be thinking about it from your own side. You say you've no mind to see your Order made political or to have any of our folk-Horse Stealer or Bloody Sword-thinking as how your swords are after being in my pocket. Well, I'll not say your wrong. In fact, I'll say you've my total agreement, and the politics of it are the least important reason why. But if you're meaning to convince the other princes of your Order's independence, then you'd best be starting down that path right now. That mean's you've no choice but to be hitting 'em square betwixt the eyes with it, and it may be you've noticed as how it takes a heavy hammer to drive any notion through a hradani's skull!"
"I see." Bahzell rubbed his chin, then shook his head. "It's thankful I am for your consideration, Da," he said with exquisite propriety, "and grateful you're after being so concerned for the Order's future. But it's in my mind himself will be finding his own road to make our status clear."
"No doubt, no doubt," his father said, patting him on the shoulder with another smile. "But it's a father's duty to be looking out for his son and helping him on in any way he can, and it's glad I am this little opportunity was falling in my way, as it were."
Bahzell regarded him for another long, thoughtful moment, then sighed deeply and looked back at his sister.
"And did you manage that other thing I was asking for?"
"I did," she replied. "I can't tell you for certain sure that no one else will be throwing his name out, mind, but I've seen to it as how Brandark's not been mentioned at all, at all, in any of our 'rumors.' "
"Good," Bahzell said softly, and hugged her briefly in thanks. The members of his fledgling chapter knew the importance of Brandark's part in their mission, but they also knew how vital it was that Churnazh not learn of it. Brandark's father and his allies among the old families of Navahk were too powerful for Churnazh to risk alienating when he stood on the brink of a war for survival, but if the Navahkan learned Brandark had not only helped the raiders locate Sharna's sanctuary but personally killed the heir to the throne, he would have no choice but to move against Brandark the Elder anyway.
"All right, then," his father said much more seriously. "Are you and your lads ready, Bahzell?"
"We are that," Bahzell said grimly, and Bahnak nodded.
"In that case, boy, let's be about it."