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Chapter Twenty-Six

The Great Hall was packed. Only the space directly in front of the dais had been kept clear by Bahnak's household guards. The rest of the hall was filled by ambassadors and envoys-almost all of them women, each accompanied by the single, heavily armed armsman to whom law and tradition entitled her-and the mutter and rumble of agitated voices sounded like a fretful sea.

But the surflike sounds stilled with dramatic suddenness as a door was thrown open and Bahnak Karathson, Prince of Hurgrum and Lord of Clan Iron Axe of the Horse Stealer hradani, stalked through it. Three of his children followed him-Crown Prince Barodahn and his eldest daughter Lady Marglyth directly behind him, and Prince Thankhar, his next to youngest son, bringing up the rear like an armsman-and a dropped pin would have sounded like a thunderbolt in the silence their appearance evoked. Bahnak carried only his dagger, but both of his sons were armed and armored. Barodahn carried the daggered axe of his clan's traditionalists upon his back, and Thankhar's hand was hooked nonchalantly into his belt, inches from the hilt of his longsword.

Bahnak seemed unaffected either by the stillness which greeted his appearance or by the dignitaries and envoys who crowded his hall. To look at him, no one would have guessed the rumors frothing about Hurgrum claimed his alliance was about to collapse in ruin because of his own rash actions. In fact, he seemed so unaware of this morning's importance that he hadn't even bothered to dress for the occasion. He wore a serviceable but plain jerkin over a woolen shirt that was warm and comfortable but darned in two places, and his boots could have used a shinier coat of polish. A moderately prosperous farmer might have dressed equally well, and some of the newcomers to his court made the serious mistake of assuming only a yokel would appear on such a morning in such garments. Those who knew him better, however, drew a very different message from his appearance. Bahnak had always made a point of dressing plainly, but he dressed this plainly only on days when he planned to execute some particularly telling stroke.

Now he seated himself on his throne, with Marglyth to his left and Barodahn to his right, and faced the crowd of dignitaries. He scanned them thoughtfully, then leaned back, folded his hands across his belly, and crossed his ankles.

"Well," his deep voice rumbled mildly in the stillness, "I suppose we'd best be getting on with it. Jahnkah?"

"Yes, Your Highness." The old man who served as Bahnak's majordomo and chamberlain had been one of the most feared warriors of Clan Iron Axe in his prime, and he retained the broad shoulders and powerful arms of his youth. He also used a cut-down halberd rather than the white staff chamberlains carried in most Norfressan courts, and its iron-shod heel rang like a hammered anvil as he thumped it on the floor.

"Hail His Highness Prince Bahnak!" he intoned in a voice trained on a hundred battlefields. "Let those who seek justice and judgment draw nigh!"

There was a moment of silence, and then a short (for a hradani), richly clad, barrel-chested man shouldered through the crowd. Mutters of anger followed his rude progress, but he ignored them to plant his fists on his hips and glare at Bahnak.

"Phrobus take 'justice and judgment'!" he snapped. "I want to know what in Fiendark's name you mean by attacking my prince's territory!"

Jahnkah swelled with rage, but Bahnak raised one hand in an almost bored gesture before the chamberlain could speak. Then he returned his raised hand languidly to its companion, clasped across his middle, and looked down his nose at the belligerent figure before him. Alone among the princes of the northern hradani, Churnazh of Navahk was represented exclusively by male ambassadors. There were several reasons for that, not the least being that his personal habits meant very few women would willingly have served him in any capacity, much less as his ambassador. Almost as importantly, however, he trusted no one from outside his inner circle for sensitive missions. Hal^ashu Shakurson had been chosen as his envoy to Hurgrum because that was the single most important diplomatic post Churnazh had to fill, and Hal^ashu had been one of his closest lieutenants from the day then-General Churnazh slaughtered his way to Navahk's throne.

Over the years, Hal^ashu had served his master zealously but with limited results. It wasn't entirely his fault. Almost anyone would have been over-matched by Bahnak Karathson and his daughter Marglyth; the fact that Hal^ashu was of less than stellar intelligence only made the match even more unequal. Still worse, from his viewpoint, Churnazh equated strength with repression. Hal^ashu was no genius, but neither was he an outright fool, and he'd realized early on that Bahnak was a dangerous opponent. Churnazh, however-constitutionally incapable of recognizing the strength of anyone less brutal than himself-had brushed off Hal^ashu's warnings until it was too late.

Now that Churnazh's decision to ignore those warnings had landed him in a disastrous position, it was Hal^ashu's unenviable duty to buy as much time as he could before the inevitable final war. That had been a hard enough task even before the clash between Bahzell and Harnak, but it had become far worse since. Harnak's idiocy (and the patently false version of the affair which Churnazh had concocted as Navahk's official position) had put Hal^ashu in an intolerable diplomatic bind, and he'd grown more and more short-tempered as the winter dragged by. Now he hovered on the very brink of the Rage, and the armsmen of the envoys nearest to him kept hands close to their hilts.

"Attack your prince's territory, is it?" Bahnak rumbled at last in mild surprise. "And what would be causing you to think I'd done any such thing, Lord Hal^ashu?"

"Don't play games with me, Bahnak!" Hal^ashu waved an angry hand at the crowded hall. "Everyone knows your son Bahzell is back in Hurgrum! And everyone also knows that, not content with assaulting and half-killing Crown Prince Harnak in violation of his hostage bond, he's led a raid by your men on Navahkan territory in clear violation of the treaties between you and my prince! I'll leave it to your allies to decide whether or not they want to follow anyone who authorizes such aggression without even consulting them, but your son's actions are another matter. This new outrage makes him twice an outlaw, and on behalf of Prince Churnazh of Navahk, I demand he be surrendered to face our justice!"

"Well, now. That's after being quite a mouthful so early in the morning, isn't it just?" Bahnak replied, and looked at Marglyth. "Would you be knowing of any treaties we've had the breaking of?" She shook her head with a small smile, and he glanced at Barodahn. "And you, Barodahn. You wouldn't've been authorizing any raids on those bast-I mean on our esteemed Navahkan neighbors without asking me, would you now?" Barodahn shook his head in turn, and Bahnak turned back to the purple-faced Hal^ashu and shrugged. "Well, there you have it, Milord Ambassador. I'm afraid you're after being misinformed. Was there something else I could be doing for you this morning?"

"Damn you!" Hal^ashu hissed. One hand dropped to his dagger, and he started to step forward, only to stop as Thankhar took a single stride to his left and faced him. Like all Bahnak's sons, Thankhar towered well over seven feet in height. Unlike Hal^ashu, he wore mail, and his right hand rested lightly on the hilt of his sword. For just an instant it looked as if Hal^ashu's Rage would take him forward anyway, but it didn't. Instead, he stood absolutely motionless for several fulminating seconds, and then made his fingers unclench from the dagger. He inhaled deeply and glared at Bahnak.

"You can play all the word games you like," he grated, "but everyone in this room has heard the same stories I have. You and your murdering son have played fast and loose with our treaties since they day they were signed, and you've gotten away with it so far only because your son is as cowardly as he is treacherous! If he hadn't run for his life like a mongrel cur, we would have proven it was he who raped that girl and half-killed Prince Harnak for trying to stop him! But he's back now, and up to his old tricks-no doubt cutting the throats of our sentries while they sleep in time of peace! Well, this time he's gone too far-and so have you!"

"Raped-?" Bahnak began in a puzzled voice. Then his expression cleared. "Oh! You're meaning those foolish lies you and Churnazh were after spreading after Bahzell sent Farmah to me for safety! Well, it's sorry I am to have to tell you this, Hal^ashu, but Farmah herself is ready enough to tell what happened to her, and I'm thinking her tale won't be so very close to yours."

"Of course not! No doubt you've paid the wench enough!" Hal^ashu shot back, but his voice was weaker, despite his anger. He'd had no choice but to parrot the line Churnazh had adopted, ridiculous as everyone knew it to be, but he had no desire at all to hear Farmah tell her side of what had really happened.

"Aye, no doubt I have," Bahnak agreed soothingly, like a man humoring a lunatic. But then he smiled. "On the other hand, and speaking of sons and all, I was wondering if you could be telling us just where Crown Prince Harnak has taken himself to? It's been some months now since I've heard a thing at all about him." His smile vanished suddenly, and all levity disappeared. "I'm hoping his health hasn't been taking a turn for the worse," he finished in a voice of cold iron, and Hal^ashu flinched.

He licked his lips and darted nervous eyes around the room, but not even the other Bloody Sword envoys would return his look. No one in Navahk had received any official word of Harnak's fate but they knew, for The Lay of Bahzell Bloody-Hand was highly popular in certain circles. No one was foolish enough to sing it where Churnazh might hear of it, but it had been enough to get Chalghaz named crown prince in Harnak's place.

Hal^ashu opened his mouth once more, but Bahnak had toyed with him long enough. The Navahkan had been trapped by his own untenable position into making exactly the accusations Bahnak had wanted someone to make. Now the Prince of Hurgrum came to his feet, uncoiling from his false pose of relaxation like a serpent, and glared at the hapless ambassador.

"So my son's a coward and a murderer, is he?" His voice rumbled and echoed in the hall. To his credit, Hal^ashu stood his ground, but his ears pressed tight to his head and his shoulders tightened. "No doubt that's the tale Churnazh would be wanting told," Bahnak went on witheringly, "but the truth's after being just a bit different, isn't it now?"

He looked away from Hal^ashu, sweeping all the envoys with his eyes, and this time it was he who propped his fists on his hips.

"There you stand, every one of you, half ready to be believing the lies scum like this is after telling," he said, jerking his head contemptuously at Hal^ashu. "How many of you are thinking his tales about Bahzell and Harnak have any truth at all, at all, in them?" he demanded. No one spoke, and he snorted. "Aye, so I thought. Yet let the same lying pile of hog dung tell you as how I've sent men to attack Churnazh in time of peace, and it's another tale, is it?" Still no one spoke, and he raised his voice. "Is it?" he barked.

"With all due respect, Your Highness, it is," someone said. The crowd parted, and another ambassador stepped to the front. Silver-haired Lady Entarath of Halk was a Bloody Sword, and her city-state was allied to Navahk, but she eyed Hal^ashu with undisguised contempt before she turned back to Bahnak.

"The matter of your son and Crown Prince Harnak lies solely between you and Prince Churnazh," she told him calmly. "Prince Bahzell was outlawed by Churnazh for breaking hostage bond. Under the letter of our law and traditions, that means his life is forfeit to Churnazh. Yet as you are quite well aware, given the dispute concerning his actions, my own prince, and those of the other cities allied to him, have declined to support Churnazh's demands that Prince Bahzell be surrendered to him. But be that as it may, Your Highness, the reports of Horse Stealer attacks on Navahkan territory do not come from Lord Hal^ashu alone. My own sources report the same thing to me, and they, too, insist that Prince Bahzell led the attack in your name."

The hall was still and quiet. Lady Entarath was a very different proposition from Hal^ashu. Halk was allied with Navahk because it was a Bloody Sword city, not because its people held any love for Churnazh, and Entarath had served as ambassador to Hurgrum for Prince Thalahk, her present prince's father, for decades. She was a senior member of the hradani diplomatic corps and widely respected, even among Horse Stealers, and her calm, deliberate tone carried far more weight than Hal^ashu's half-hysterical posturing.

"Because those reports are so wide spread," she went on, "I now ask you formally, in the name of Prince Ranthar of Halk, whether or not they are true. Have you in fact attacked Navahk without declaration of war? Or is it possible such an attack was made without your authorization? And if so, was that attack led by Prince Bahzell?"

Bahnak gazed down at her, then looked out across the hall once more. He let the silence linger for a long, tingling moment, then returned his gaze to Entarath.

"In answer to your question, Milady," he said with grave courtesy, "neither I, nor any warrior under my command, nor yet any warrior of mine acting without my leave or let, has attacked the army or people of Navahk."

A rippling sigh of relief went up from half the envoys, to be answered by a buzz of disbelief from the other half, but Bahnak raised his hand.

"Nonetheless," he went on, "Horse Stealer warriors were after crossing into Navahk last week and my son Bahzell was at their head."

Shocked silence fell at the admission. It lay upon the hall like a fog bank for endless seconds, and then Hal^ashu broke it.

"But you said-!" he began furiously.

"I said as how no warrior under my command was after attacking that scum-eating, fornicating, base-born bastard you call prince!" Bahnak snapped "And no more did they! Nor was it me who had the sending of them into Navahk!"

He nodded curtly to a guard, and the man reopened the door through which he and his children had entered the hall. The movement drew every eye, and a chorus of gasps echoed as Bahzell walked through it, followed by his cousin Hurthang, his foster brother Gharnal, and half a dozen other Horse Stealers. Every one of them wore a green surcoat over a chain or scale hauberk, and the seamstresses of Bahnak's household had stayed up late embroidering the sword and mace of Tomanak onto each of them. That should have been enough to make any one of the envoys gasp in surprise, but it hardly even registered at first, for two humans-one a golden-haired young man and the other a raven-haired woman-in the same surcoats accompanied them and so did perhaps a dozen prisoners, most of whom were clearly Bloody Swords.

Bahzell led the way, hands tucked unthreateningly into his belt, but the envoys and armsmen in his path began backing away the instant they saw his eyes. Even Hal^ashu stepped back, swallowing hard, as he found himself face-to-face with the man he'd just finished accusing of rape, cowardice, and treachery. Only Lady Entarath and her armsman stood their ground, and Bahzell nodded courteously to her as his followers and their prisoners flowed forward into the space his mere presence had cleared for them.

"These are the men-some of them, at least-as you've heard so many tales about," Prince Bahnak said quietly, seating himself once more upon his throne. "And though it's proud I am to call them Horse Stealers, aye, and warriors of Clan Iron Axe, they're no longer mine to command, for they've sworn their swords to another as my son has." He turned to look at Hal^ashu with an expression of withering contempt. "I've no doubt at all, at all, you'll recognize the symbols of Tomanak , Milord Ambassador. So perhaps you'd be so very kind as to be repeating now the tale you and your 'prince' have been after telling for nigh on six months? It's interested I'll be to hear you accuse a champion of Tomanak of rape and murder and cowardice to his face!"

"Champion?" The word came out of Hal^ashu half-strangled, and the same ripple of shock ran through everyone else. "Are you- D'you mean to stand there and claim your son is a champion of Tomanak ?"

"He does that," Bahzell rumbled. Hal^ashu's eyes jerked back to him, and Bahnak's youngest son smiled thinly. "And would you care to be telling me just what it is you've been saying of me?" he invited.

"I-" Hal^ashu swallowed, then shook himself. "What I've said or your father's said about that doesn't matter," he shot back gamely. "What does matter is that he's just admitted he sent you to attack Navahk after telling everyone he'd done no such thing!"

"You've the ears of a hradani," Bahzell replied in tones of profound disgust, "but it's clear they've done you no good at all, at all, for if you'd used them, you'd know he'd 'admitted' nothing of the sort. Father wasn't after sending us anywhere, you stupid bugger. Tomanak sent us, as members of his Order, and not to be attacking Navahk."

He nodded to Hurthang, and his cousin jerked a prisoner roughly forward. Tharnatus still wore the blood-soaked robe in which he had been captured, and he cried out as Hurthang shoved him to his knees. But the Horse Stealer ignored his cry and gripped his hair, jerking his head up, and then ripped the throat of his robe wide to show the gleaming, gem-studded scorpion he wore about his neck.

Half a dozen voices cried out in horror, and Lady Entarath stepped back at last. Her right hand signed the crescent moon of Lillinara, and her lips worked as if to spit upon the floor. She jerked her eyes from Tharnatus to Bahzell, and the Horse Stealer nodded in grave answer to the question he saw in them. She stared at him a moment longer, and then she bent her head-not in submission, but in recognition-and touched her armsman's mailed sleeve. The two of them stepped back into the crowd behind them, and Bahzell raised his eyes to sweep the entire hall.

"I'm thinking as how you all know whose sign that is," he rumbled, "and it was to deal with those as follow it that Tomanak was after sending us into Navahk."

"A-Are you-? D'you mean-?" Hal^ashu sputtered furiously. He was white-faced with shock, but for the first time his outrage seemed completely genuine. "Are you accusing my prince of worshiping Sharna?" he managed at last.

"Accuse Churnazh?" Bahzell met his infuriated stare levelly while the rest of the envoys listened in hushed anticipation. "No. No, I'll not lay that on Churnazh." A deep, soft sigh greeted his answer, but Bahzell wasn't done. "But this I will be saying, Lord Hal^ashu-your precious Harnak was after worshiping Demon Breath, and it was in Sharna's service he fell to my own sword." Hal^ashu jerked as if he'd been struck, and Bahzell smiled coldly. "And as for the rest of Churnazh's family-"

He nodded again, this time to Gharnal, and his foster brother stepped forward. He untied the cloth sack he carried and upended it, and the solid, meaty thud as Crown Prince Chalghaz's severed head hit the floor echoed in the stunned silence.

"I'll not call Churnazh demon-worshiper," Bahzell said softly into that silence, "but I will be saying he's not been so very careful as he might have about his sons' doings, has he now?"

Hal^ashu's eyes bulged as he stared at the head of his prince's heir. Two of Churnazh's sons had fallen to Bahzell Bahnakson now, and his teeth grated with his own hate, as well as the anticipation of how Navahk's ruler would react. The other envoys were at least equally shocked, but they were also confused. Hal^ashu had no more idea than they of what had actually happened, but he already saw where this disastrous morning was headed. Whatever Churnazh might or might not have known, the accusation that his two eldest sons had both worshiped Sharna would devastate his alliances. But there was only one way that accusation could be refuted, and the Navahkan envoy shook himself and wrenched his eyes away from Chalghaz's head.

"So you say!" he spat at Bahzell, and wheeled to glare at Bahnak. "And you-you say it! But I see no proof. I see only the head of another murdered prince of Navahk!"

"And what of that other lot?" an envoy from one of the other Horse Stealer princes called out. "Or would you be saying they're not after being 'proof,' either?"

"I don't know anything about them," Hal^ashu shot back, turning to glare at the woman who'd spoken, "and neither do you! Perhaps they truly do-did-worship Sharna, and perhaps they didn't. Anyone can be forced to wear a fancy bedgown, Milady, just as anyone can be forced to wear a fancy necklace. I won't say they are or aren't what they seem-but neither will I say he is!" He waved his hand at Bahzell in a choppy gesture. "I see Horse Stealers wearing the colors of Tomanak and claiming Bloody Swords worship Sharna. Well, why the Phrobus should we take their word for it?"

"Are you after calling me a liar, then?" Bahzell asked in a voice whose mildness deceived no one, but Hal^ashu only flicked a sneer at him, secure in his ambassador's inviolability. He felt the attitudes of the other envoys shifting as his argument registered, and he moved to drive his momentary advantage home.

"I'm saying I see no reason to accept your unsupported word that my folk are blood-drinking, flesh-eating, demon-worshiping monsters," he said flatly. "It would certainly be convenient for you Horse Stealers if we were, now wouldn't it?"

"Maybe it would, and maybe it wouldn't," Bahzell replied coldly, "but I've not said any such thing. Some of your folk, aye, and we've the proof of that right here." He waved at the prisoners. "But all of 'em? No. Whatever the feelings between Horse Stealer and Bloody Sword, I'm after knowing as well as you that most of your folk are decent enough, and few among 'em would wallow in such filth as that. Not even Churnazh, if only because he's after knowing exactly how his allies would turn on him if ever he did."

Several envoys murmured agreement, and Hal^ashu's jaw clenched as the small opinion swing in his favor swung back the other way. Bahzell's refusal to accuse Churnazh of sharing his sons' perversions was a telling blow. If all this had been some ploy by Bahnak to discredit his enemy, Bahzell would have done exactly the opposite, and Hal^ashu knew it. But he also knew the Horse Stealers didn't have to accuse Churnazh personally. The mere fact that Sharna had gained a hold in Navahk-and upon two successive heirs to the throne, at that!-would shake the Bloody Sword alliances to their foundations. He felt a sick, sinking certainty that Bahzell was telling the truth, or a part of it, at least, yet he dared not admit it.

"How kind of you to omit Prince Churnazh from your lies!" he sneered instead. "Of course, you didn't accuse either of his sons until after they were safely dead, either, now did you? It's hard for a dead man to defend himself, isn't it, Prince Bahzell?"

"So it is," Bahzell agreed. "Of course, it's also a mite hard to be taking a man alive when he's been given a cursed sword as opens a gate to Sharna himself, now isn't it, Milord Ambassador?"

"So you say!" Hal^ashu spat. "But why should we believe you? You say you're a champion of Tomanak , too, don't you?" He turned to the assembled envoys and threw up his arms in appeal. "A champion of Tomanak ? A hradani champion? I ask you all, my lords and ladies-why in the names of all the gods should we believe that? Oh, I'll admit it's a bold stroke! What better way to discredit my prince than to murder his sons and then accuse them of having worshiped the Demon Lord? And who better to make the accusation than a 'champion of Tomanak '? But there hasn't been a hradani champion in over twelve centuries! Who among us would be fool enough to claim someone like Bahzell Bahnakson as such?"

"I would," a voice like a mountain avalanche said. It shook the entire hall, and Hal^ashu spun about and his mouth dropped open as he saw the speaker.

Tomanak Orfro stood beside Bahzell. It was impossible, of course. There was no room in that crowded hall for a ten-foot-tall deity, and yet there was. In some way every person there knew he or she would never be able to explain, Prince Bahnak's hall remained exactly the same size and yet expanded enormously. There was room in it for anything, and the god's presence swept through it like a storm. The prisoners his Order had brought back from Navahk wailed in terror, thrashing wildly against their bonds as the Dark Gods' most deadly foe appeared before them. The guards tightened their grips upon them, but before they could do more Tomanak glanced once at the captives, and their wails were cut off as if by an axe. They stood petrified, eyes bulging in horror, and the smile he gave them was colder than the steel of his blade.

Then he looked away from them. His gaze-no longer crushing and silencing, but no less potent-swept the envoys and, throughout the hall, men fell to their knees and women sank in deep curtseys before the power which had appeared among them.

But not everyone knelt. Hal^ashu of Navahk stood almost like the prisoners, too frozen to move and, as the others knelt, Bahnak himself rose once more from his throne. He stood with his daughter at his side and his older sons behind him, and Tomanak glanced at Bahzell with a smile.

"It runs in the family, I see," he said wryly, and eyes brightened throughout the hall at the laughter which flickered in his voice.

"Aye, I suppose it does," Bahzell agreed. "We're after being a mite on the stubborn side, the lot of us."

"The lot of you, indeed," Tomanak said, looking at the ambassadors. "I hope you won't take this wrongly, Bahzell, but it seemed to me as if the argument could go on for at least a week. Under the circumstances, I thought perhaps I could speed things up a bit."

"Did you, then?" Bahzell murmured. He let his own eyes sweep the stunned envoys, and a small smile hovered on his lips. "D'you know, I'm thinking as how you might just have done that thing."

"I intended to. Of course, with hradani it's hard to be certain you've gotten through," Tomanak observed, and this time half a dozen of the people in the hall surprised themselves by laughing with him.

"That's better," he told them, then looked back down at Bahzell. "You've done well," he said. "It's not often that even one of my champions creates a whole new chapter of the Order singlehanded and then leads them to such victory in their very first battle. You've exceeded expectations yet again, Bahzell. That seems to be a habit of yours."

"I'm sure that's flattering," Bahzell said dryly, "but I'd not say as how I was after doing it 'singlehanded.' You'll be knowing even better than I the quality of the lads who followed me-and I'd not call the help of another champion naught."

"No, you wouldn't. And neither would I, though some might attempt to in your place. I stand corrected."

Tomanak nodded gravely. Then he turned to Hal^ashu, and his expression became stern. "I trust, Ambassador, that your doubts as to my champion's honesty have now been resolved? Do you take my word that he is, indeed, my champion, and that whatever you may think, I know all of these-" a hand waved at the warriors who'd followed Bahzell into Navahk and now knelt in wonder as they gazed at their deity "-as my own?"

"Y-Y-Y-" Hal^ashu swallowed hard. "Yes, Sir," he choked out finally.

"Good." Tomanak made a shooing gesture with one index finger, and Hal^ashu fell back instantly into the crowd and went to his own knees. The War God folded his arms, regarding them all for several moments, and a strange, breathless hush seemed to hover somewhere at the bases of their throats.

"Hal^ashu was correct about one thing, you know," Tomanak told them at last, and now that boulder-shattering voice was gentle. "Neither I nor any other God of Light have had a hradani champion since the Fall of Kontovar. It wasn't because we no longer cared for you, nor had we abandoned you, however hard your lot had become. But the damage which had been done to you by the Dark Gods and their servants was too terrible. We had been unable to prevent it, and your ancestors-"

He sighed, and his brown eyes shone with a sorrow too deep for tears-one so deep only a god could know it.

"Your ancestors could not forgive our failure," he said softly, "and how could we blame them? If we could have prevented it, we would have, but as Bahzell here could tell you, we may act only through our followers in your world. The Dark won an enormous victory in the Fall, and not the least of their triumphs was the hatred and suspicion which have divided your people not simply from the other Races of Man, but also from us.

"But the damage you suffered can be healed, and those divisions need not remain forever, and that, my children, is why the time has come for me to choose a hradani champion once again. Bahzell and the chapter of my Order he has established here among you have much to tell you and teach you. I will leave that task to him and to those he chooses to help him with it, but I tell you now-all of you-that my Order welcomes all hradani. Horse Stealer, Bloody Sword, Broken Bone and Wild Wash any hradani who keeps my Code and honors the Light will be as welcome among my Blades as any human or dwarf or elf. The time has come for you to stand once more in the Light, and you will find that the terrible years your people have spent in the shadows have given you strengths and abilities the other Races will someday need sorely."

"But-"

The single word came out of Hal^ashu, and Tomanak looked at the Navahkan once more. There was no judgment or condemnation in the god's eyes, yet they cut Hal^ashu off like a knife blade, and sweat beaded the envoy's face as all the endless times he and his prince had violated Tomanak's code flickered in his brain.

"But you wonder if my choice of Bahzell-and his willingness to accept the burden of serving as my champion-mean I have chosen sides between Navahk and Hurgrum?" the god asked quietly, and somehow Hal^ashu found the strength to nod.

"I am the Judge of Princes, Hal^ashu of Navahk, and my courtroom is the field of battle. My decision will be rendered there, not here. I did not appear before you for that purpose, and neither my Order nor my champions will take part in any fighting between your prince and Hurgrum's." The god gazed out at all the envoys. "More, I here confirm what Bahzell has told you: Churnazh of Navahk had no knowledge of his sons' actions or of Sharna's presence in his realm. If you would oppose him, oppose him for reasons other than that. If you would support him, then do not hold the crimes of others against him. You are not slaves, and we of the Light do not seek such. You must make your own decisions in this, as you must decide what god-if any-you will follow."

Hal^ashu nodded again, a bit more naturally, and Tomanak looked at Bahzell.

"I know how stubborn you can be. Will you obey my wishes in this respect?"

"Aye," Bahzell replied. "I'll not say I like it, but I'll do as you wish. Besides-" he grinned suddenly "-it's not as if there aren't after being Horse Stealers enough to deal with the likes of Navahk without me!"

"I suppose that's the most gracious promise I can hope for." Tomanak sighed so mournfully that, once again, the envoys surprised themselves with a ripple of laughter. The god smiled at them, then glanced at Kaeritha and beckoned her forward.

"Did you think I would forget to greet you, Kerry?" he asked teasingly.

"No." She smiled. "I just assumed you needed to concentrate on Bahzell first. I've noticed that getting ideas through to him requires a certain amount of effort."

"Even from a god," Tomanak agreed. "Ask him someday to tell you about how long I had to pester him before he even realized who was trying to get his attention."

"I will," she promised.

"Good. For now, though, and in answer to the question in your mind, yes. You're doing exactly what you ought to be doing."

"I am?" She blinked. "Well, that's reassuring. Now if I only knew what I'm doing, everything would be perfect."

"Don't worry. It will come to you. And now-" the god turned to where the members of the newest chapter of his Order knelt "-there's only one more detail to be dealt with. Come here, Vaijon."

The golden haired knight-probationer jerked as if somehow had just touched a particularly sensitive portion of his anatomy with a well-heated poker. His head flew up, his expression one of mingled delight and fear, and he rose. He walked across the floor through a hush that was once more total to stand between Bahzell and Kaeritha, gazing up at his deity's face, and Tomanak smiled.

"I have something of yours," he told him. Vaijon's eyebrows rose in surprise, and then the god reached out a hand and plucked a sword out of the air as casually as a mortal might have reached into a pocket. He held it up, turning it so that the gems set into its hilt and guard glittered, and astonished recognition flickered in Vaijon's eyes.

"I believe you left this in a demon," Tomanak said.

"I-" Vaijon looked up at him, then nodded. "I suppose I did," he said.

"A pretty toy," Tomanak observed, "but the steel is sound enough under all the fancywork. One simply has to look close enough to see it, wouldn't you say, Vaijon?" The young man nodded slowly, never looking away from the god's face. Every person in the hall knew the words meant far more than they seemed to, but only Bahzell and Vaijon knew what that something more was.

"Yes," Tomanak went on judiciously, "I think you understand that now. Just as you understand that a blade that looks a bit rough and unpolished-" he flicked a grin at Bahzell "-can bite deeper and truer than the most beautiful one ever forged. And just as you've learned to understand that-" he returned his eyes to Vaijon "-I've tested the steel in you, Vaijon of Almerhas. It took a while to see past the gems and decoration, but there's a fine blade underneath all that gaudiness one I would be pleased to call my own."

He reached down and handed Vaijon's sword not to him, but to Kaeritha. Vaijon's eyes flickered in confusion for a moment, but then Tomanak reached back over his shoulder to draw his own sword and extend the hilt to him.

"Will you swear Sword Oath to me as my champion, Vaijon?" he asked, and Vaijon sucked in deeply. His eyes clung to that plain, wire-bound hilt, and he started to shake his head-not in rejection, but with a profound sense of his unworthiness. But a hand on his shoulder stopped him, and he turned his head to see Bahzell's smile.

"It's not a thing as any man feels worthy of, lad," he said softly.

"No, it's not," Tomanak confirmed, "and the more worthy of it he is, the less worthy he feels. But you are worthy, Vaijon. Will you serve me?"

"I will," Vaijon whispered, and laid his hand upon the hilt of his god's sword.

Blue light crackled about his fingers as he touched it, and prominences of the same light ran up his arm to dance and seethe about his head like a crown of fire. The same blue radiance danced above Bahzell and Kaeritha, flickering in a web of power that linked both champions to the champion to be and to their deity, and Tomanak's deep voice echoed in the silence of Prince Bahnak's hall.

"Do you, Vaijon of Almerhas, swear fealty to me?"

"I do." Vaijon's voice had taken on an echo of the War God's, and there was no more doubt, no more hesitation in it.

"Will you honor and keep my Code? Will you bear true service to the Powers of Light, heeding the commands of your own heart and mind and striving always against the Dark as they require, even unto death?"

"I will."

"Do you swear by my Sword and your own to render compassion to those in need, justice to those you may be set to command, loyalty to those you choose to serve, and punishment to those who knowingly serve the Dark?"

"I do."

"Then I accept your oath, Vaijon of Almerhas, and bid you take up your blade once more. Bear it well in the cause to which you have been called."

There was a moment, like a pause in the breath of infinity-one Bahzell remembered well from a windy night in the Shipwood when he had sworn that oath-and then Tomanak drew back his sword and Vaijon blinked like a man awaking from sleep. He drew a deep, lung-filling breath and smiled up at his god, and Kaeritha stepped up beside him and extended the sword Tomanak had handed her. He took it from her and, as he touched it, Bahzell saw the same spark in him he had seen in Kaeritha from the first-the flicker of Tomanak's reflected presence burning like some secret coal at the young man's heart. He reached out, embracing the War God's newest champion, and Tomanak smiled down at them all.

"Remarkable," he said, drawing his champions' eyes back to him. He shook his head. "It isn't often one of my champions has the opportunity to swear Sword Oath with even one other champion present, and here I am with three. And the three of you," he told them, "are quite possibly the stubbornest trio of mortals I've come across in millennia. If you think you had a hard time with Vaijon, Bahzell, you should hunt up Dame Chaerwyn and let her tell you what she went through with Kerry!"

"I wasn't that bad, Milord!" Kaeritha protested. "Was I?"

"Worse," Tomanak assured her. "Much worse. But the best ones usually are."

"Are they, now?" Bahzell asked.

"Of course there are, Bahzell," Tomanak said. "That's why I feel confident I'll be finding lots of them among your folk in the future."

And he vanished.


Chapter Twenty-Five | The War God's Own | Chapter Twenty-Seven



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