Brandark Brandarkson leaned back on the weathered wooden bench with a mug of beer and basked in the first real sunlight in almost a week. The cold, wet rains of a northern spring were no stranger to him, but that didn't mean he enjoyed them, and he savored the clean, mellow taste of the beer as he soaked up the warmth. His bench was in an angle of the wall around the exercise field of the fortified manor Prince Bahnak had deeded to the fledgling Hurgrum Chapter of the Order of Tomanak . The sharp bend shielded him from the breeze-still unpleasantly biting-while he enjoyed the sun and the first, shy flowers of spring poking through the muddy grass, and his balalaika lay beside him, weighting down the pad on which he'd been jotting potential lyrics.
He took another long swallow. The chill damp in the air only contrasted with the sun's warmth and made it even more welcome, and he luxuriated in sensual enjoyment. Yet his joy was less than complete, for the same sun had cleared most of the snow from the roads. The short northern campaigning season was almost upon them-would be, as soon as the mud dried a bit and the spring planting was in-and he felt time passing like the ticking of his pocket watch in the back of his brain while he watched the members of the newest chapter of the Order of Tomanak at drill.
There were more of them than there had been. Fresh recruits had trickled in steadily-most Horse Stealers, but with a prickly, defensive Bloody Sword tucked away among them here and there-ever since the dramatic scene in Bahnak's hall. The word that Tomanak Himself had appeared had spread like wildfire, and the response had been astounding, especially for hradani. Their centuries-long distrust of all gods should have made them react as young Chav^ak had: with suspicion and doubt. And if the truth was known, Brandark suspected, many had reacted in exactly that fashion. But a significant number had not, and even Churnazh had been forced to give his blessings to the creation of the new chapter. He hadn't wanted to. The grudging wording of his proclamation made that perfectly plain! Yet he'd had no choice but to grant any of his warriors who wished to join it leave to do so-not after the Order's very first act had been to rescue his own realm from the influence of the Dark Gods. And especially not after Bahzell had proclaimed Tomanak's news about the Rage.
Now over eighty warriors were out in the exercise field, squelching around the brown, sodden turf while wooden training weapons whacked and thwacked with bruising enthusiasm. Even from here he could hear occasional grunts of anguish as blows got through on practice armor, and Vaijon had two or three of the younger members off to one side, demonstrating a pass they'd never seen before. Despite his foreboding over the rapidly approaching war, Brandark smiled into his beer as he noted how intently the youngsters listened. It was amazing how having the War God Himself turn up to declare a man a champion could raise his stock, he thought wryly.
Someone walked around the corner into his sheltered nook and he turned his head, then rose with a smile, flourishing his beer as he bowed gracefully to Marglyth.
"Good morning, Milady," he said, and she smiled back at him.
"And good morning to you, Lord Brandark." She dropped a tiny curtsey in response to his bow. "And now you can just sit back down before I'm after kicking you somewhere as you wouldn't like," she suggested, and he laughed.
"Ah, you Horse Stealers are so… uncomplicated," he said, waving her down to sit beside him, and it was her turn to laugh.
"I suppose we are that," she agreed. But then her smile faded as she turned her head to watch the field. Her sister Sharkah was out there, working with Kaeritha, and Marglyth's eyes were worried as she watched them. Kaeritha wasn't teaching Sharkah her own style. Unlike Marglyth, who was as close to petite as any Horse Stealer was ever likely to come, Sharkah favored her father and brothers. She stood close to seven feet tall, and if she was built on slimmer lines, without her male siblings' massive thews, she was also faster. Kaeritha had her training with a bastard sword, and her progress was so excellent that Marglyth felt certain Sharkah had convinced one of their brothers-probably Thankar-to give her a little surreptitious training even before Bahnak relaxed his edict. Kaeritha had not yet moved beyond the most basic moves while she worked to build up the girl's muscle mass, and Sharkah was still awkward. But she was much less awkward than any of her brothers had been at the same official stage in their training, and her determination was almost frightening.
"Worried, Marglyth?" Brandark asked gently. She glanced quickly at him, expression guarded, then relaxed as she saw the understanding in his eyes.
"I am that. Mind, it's not because I've any objection to her doing as she chooses. Come to that, I've been telling Da for two years now that he'd be wiser to see to her training himself before she was after sneaking off to learn it on her own. It's only that she's so… focused. I've this dream comes to me these nights that she's like to be running off half-trained to do something truly stupid when once the war ever starts."
"She does rather remind you of her youngest brother, doesn't she?" Brandark murmured, and Marglyth chuckled.
"Aye, she does. And as you'll be knowing as well as I, there was never a day in his life Bahzell Bahnakson looked before he leapt!"
"Actually, I don't think I can agree with that-not really," Brandark said much more seriously, and Marglyth raised an eyebrow. "He's not a patient man, your brother, but I don't really think of him as hasty. It's more a matter of knowing his own mind. Or knowing himself, maybe." The Bloody Sword frowned, trying to find exactly the right words. "It's not that he doesn't think about the consequences of what he does, Marglyth; it's just that he accepts those consequences, whatever they may be, if that sense of responsibility tells him he should do it anyway." He shook his head.
"Bahzell is probably the least complicated man I know, once you figure out what's truly important to him, but he's also the stubbornest. It's like this business about the Rage. Tomanak told him to tell all hradani, and damn me if he didn't-right on the brink of a flaming war!" Brandark shook his head again, gazing out across the field at his friend. "Somehow I suspect your father would have preferred for him to wait to tell Churnazh and his lot about that until after the fighting was over."
"He would that," Marglyth agreed. "But Bahzell was after insisting it had to be now, before the fighting. He said Tomanak hadn't told him to be doing it at the most convenient time for us. I was thinking Da was like to burst a blood vessel, but then he just threw up his hands and went stalking out of the room." She chuckled. "Truth to tell, I'm thinking he was a mite pleased about it, once his temper'd cooled."
"He would be," Brandark said dryly. "But that's my point. Bahzell loves his father dearly, but even if he'd expected Prince Bahnak to be furious-and to stay that way-he still would have done exactly the same thing because it was his job to do it. I may not accuse him of being very smart, but he is a bit on the determined side."
"Aye, and Sharkah's another chip from the same boneheaded boulder!" Marglyth said tartly, then sighed. "I could wish as how she'd be just a bit less mulish than he. After all, she's the better part of ten years' advantage on him, and she could have been learning some discretion in that long! But it's useless telling myself there's hope she'll change this late in the day."
"Probably not. On the other hand, Kerry's as well aware of that as you are, and she gave her as stern a lecture as I've ever heard before she agreed to train her." Brandark laughed again. "The funny thing is, Sharkah is a good fifteen years older than Kerry is, but in terms of experience-!" He shrugged, and Marglyth nodded.
"Aye. It's hard to remind myself sometimes that humans are only like to live seventy or eighty years. It must give them a dreadful need to be out and doing early."
"I don't think they really see it that way," Brandark said thoughtfully. "That they're shorter on time than we are, I mean. All other things being equal, they're inclined to let their children grow up faster than we let ours, I think, but then, they have more of them than we do. If Kerry's childhood had been less ugly, she'd probably have stayed in her home village and had at least four or five children by now. Probably more."
"What?" Marglyth blinked at her. "But if Sharkah's being-" She broke off and did some rapid math. "Why, she's not a day past thirty-two!" she said in half-shocked tones, for a hradani girl seldom married before her late twenties and it was extremely rare for her to bear her first child before thirty.
"No, she isn't." Brandark took another swallow of beer and nodded towards the practice field. "She's little more than a girl, by our standards, but do you see her deferring to any of the lads out there?" Marglyth shook her head, and he shrugged. "That's what I mean about them growing up faster. That 'girl' has been a belted knight of Tomanak -and a champion-since she was twenty-four. What were you doing at that age?"
"Mooning after my favorite tutor," Marglyth admitted with a smile.
"Avoiding my favorite tutor. In fact, she was after avoiding every tutor, if the truth be told. I did mention as how she was just a mite like Bahzell, didn't I?"
"Yes, I believe you did. But that difference in the rate at which we expect our children to grow up is why she listens to every word Kerry says." He shrugged. "I doubt it even crosses her mind to think about Kerry's age, because what she's hearing is Kerry's experience. So when Kerry delivered her lecture, Sharkah listened, believe me."
"And what would that lecture have been about?"
"The most important part was a solemn promise from Sharkah that she'll stay home and tend to her training until Kerry decides she's ready. It was a precondition of Kerry's agreeing to train her at all, and then Bahzell came along and made her swear to obey all the Order's trainers."
"Are you saying he's admitted her to the Order?" Marglyth blinked in surprise, but Brandark shook his head.
"No. Not that he'd tell her no if she wanted to join it. But even if she did, he wouldn't let her take Sword Oath until she'd completed her initial training to the Order's satisfaction. I think the training itself is a testing process. It's grueling enough that no one who's survived it can cherish any illusions about what swearing obedience to a military order entails."
Marglyth nodded, but her eyes were on Brandark, not the field, and her expression was thoughtful. The Bloody Sword didn't seem to notice at once, but then her silence drew his own attention back from the field and he cocked his ears at her.
"You're after knowing a lot about the Order, aren't you?" she asked.
"Well, thanks to your brother I've been hanging about with it one way and another for the better part of four months," Brandark said wryly. "I suppose I've learned a little about it along the way."
"Aye, so you have. And I'm hoping you'll not take this wrongly, but why is it that you haven't joined it?" Brandark cocked his head, and Marglyth hurried on. "What I'm meaning to say is, you've been going along with Bahzell and watching his back wherever the Order took him, and from all I've had the hearing of, there's not a knight of Tomanak at all as has done more."
"Um." Brandark reached for his balalaika and picked out soft, plaintive notes while he considered her question. She watched his maimed left hand chording around the missing fingers and waited patiently for more than a full minute. Then he shrugged. "Tomanak's not the right god," he said simply.
"Excuse me?" Marglyth blinked, and he laughed.
"Oh, I respect Him, and I certainly agree with what He seems to have in mind. But the deity I've always felt closest to is Chesmirsa. Unfortunately, as you may've noticed, I lack the voice of a true bard. And despite the success of my little ditty about Bahzell, I'm actually a pretty terrible poet, as well." He said it so lightly most people might have been fooled into missing the sad longing which lurked behind the words. Marglyth wasn't one of them, but she respected him too much to show it, and so she simply nodded.
"Bahzell and I actually met Chesmirsa, you know," Brandark went on, and the lingering sorrow vanished as his eyes glowed. "It was… . I don't begin to have the words for what it was like, Marglyth. The most wonderful night of my life-the night I truly realized for the first time how much magic there is in the world. Not just what wizards and gods can do, but in here." He tapped his chest. "Inside us. She showed me that, and even when She told me I would never be a bard, She promised She would always be with me. That I would always be at least partly Hers."
He fell silent once more, fingers caressing his instrument, and Marglyth sat very still, listening to the wistful, yearning beauty he coaxed from it. Then he inhaled deeply.
"At any rate, she told me then that I was 'too much Her brother's to be fully Hers. At the time, I assumed she was speaking of Tomanak , and perhaps she was, in part. But somehow-" He frowned, then shook his head. "Somehow that's not… quite… right. There's something more to it. I just haven't figured out what."
"But they've every one of them accepted you as one of their own," Marglyth said.
"That they have-even if I am a Bloody Sword. But that's between us. Between them and me, not Tomanak and me."
"So will you be staying with us, then? After the war, I mean?"
"After the war," Brandark murmured, and the balalaika's soft notes were suddenly dark and discordant. He gazed back out over the exercise field, but Marglyth doubted that he actually saw it, and he shook his head slowly, his eyes sad.
"I don't know," he said finally. "I just don't know. You've made me as welcome as Bahzell himself-not just the Order, but your family, as well-but I'm not a Horse Stealer. I'm a Bloody Sword, and when the fighting starts, my father and my brothers and my cousins will be on the other side. I can't fight for a bastard like Churnazh, but they haven't got a choice. So the only way to avoid the risk of finding myself facing one of them across a sword is to not fight against Churnazh, either. Yet I can't just walk away. I have to be here, to know what's happening. So the only place I truly have is with the Order, because Tomanak Himself has ordered them to remain neutral. But afterward?"
He took his gaze from the exercise field and looked at her levelly.
"I love your brother, Marglyth," he said in a quiet voice. "I won't tell him that, but I imagine he knows. And I respect and admire your father. I agree with what he wants for our people-all our people, not just you Horse Stealers-and he's the only alternative I see to an unending succession of Churnazhes. But if Prince Bahnak wins the war, then my people have to lose it, and however justified I was not to fight alongside them, some of them will never forget-or forgive-the fact that I didn't. And I don't think I can stay here if that's the case. As much as I hate what Churnazh has made of my clan and my city, I'm still Raven Talon, and I'm still Navahkan, and I don't think I can handle being this close to them and… estranged. Do you understand that?"
"Aye, Brandark." She reached out and laid a hand gently on his elbow, and her eyes were soft. "Aye, I can be seeing that, and so will Bahzell, I'm thinking. But do you be remembering this, Brandark Brandarkson. Raven Talon you may be, and Bloody Sword, aye, and even Navahkan, but you're ours now, too, and you've brothers and sisters here in Hurgrum. You go on, if you've a need to, but never be forgetting us, for we'll not forget you, whatever chances."