"And I'm after telling you that it won't work!"
Hurthang Tharakson slammed a massive fist on the table and glared at his cousin. Other conversations paused as the tankards on the table danced and clattered, and the other members of the chapter broke off their own discussions and turned to watch Hurthang and Bahzell match glares. They sat across from each other in the main hall of the Hurgrum chapter's new chapter house, and their expressions were not cheerful.
"And a useless thing it is to be telling me it won't, too, and no mistake," Bahzell rumbled back in only slightly milder tones. "There's too much Horse Stealer and not enough Tomanak in your head yet, Hurthang! It's not a matter of will it or won't it, but how best to be making it work!"
"You're daft, man! Stark, staring mad! You're talking Bloody Swords-and Raven Talons to boot!" Hurthang snapped, then had the grace to look embarrassed. He glanced around the big room quickly and heaved a sigh of relief. None of the novice members were present, and Prince Bahnak had asked Brandark to join him to discuss Marglyth's spies' latest information from Navahk. Which was undoubtedly just as well, he reflected, only to have his attention drawn back to Bahzell as his cousin snorted magnificently.
"Fiendark seize me, but the man's been after figuring out a part of it, anyway! Aye, it is Bloody Swords I'm talking of right enough, you rock-pated lump of gristle, and not just Raven Talons! There's Dire Claws and Stone Daggers-aye, and Bone Fists, too! And if you're thinking I'm daft, then I can't but wonder where you'd left those hairy ears of yours when himself was amongst us!"
Hurthang glowered. Bahzell's last sentence had hit home, but it was clear he didn't want it to have, and he was Bahzell's cousin, with a determination to match. He gathered himself once more, shoulders hunching, and leaned forward into the argument once more.
"But-" he began, only to be cut off by a mild tenor.
"You're not going to win, Hurthang," it remarked, and he turned his head sharply. Vaijon gave him a crooked smile and shrugged. "You're a stubborn man, but not as stubborn as Bahzell," Tomanak's newest champion told him. "No one else is that hardheaded. Besides, this time he's right. The Order must be open to any who feel the call to serve the War God… wherever they come from."
"But-" Hurthang tried again, and Vaijon laughed.
"Give it up," he advised, not unkindly. His Hurgrumese had gotten much better, but he still had to revert to Axeman to make his points most clearly, and here and there other members of the fledgling chapter leaned towards friends to translate.
"Trust me," he went on, "it'll be easier that way. Tomanak has a way of making His points, especially to people who only continue to argue out of sheer bloody-mindedness. And the stubborner you get, the more… interesting the lesson is when it finally arrives. Believe me, I speak from painful personal experience. You can't possibly be more upset by this than I was at the notion of accepting any hradani as a member of the Order, and look where I wound up!"
He waved a hand at the hall about them, and a rumble of laughter answered the gesture. Hurthang glowered at him for another instant, but the wicked smile Vaijon gave him was too much to resist, and his own lips quirked as the worst of his fury faded.
"Aye, well, it's all very well to be making us laugh, Vaijon," he said much more calmly, "but you've yet to answer my worries. I've no doubt at all, at all, that Himself means for us to be doing just as you say-aye, and Bahzell, too, even if he is stubborn as a pasture full of mules! But there's a war coming, and it's coming on fast. And whatever you may be thinking, or me-or even Bahzell!-there no way to be knowing as how everyone as says he's been called by the Sword God truly has. D'you think for a moment the likes of Churnazh or Hal^ashu would be turning up their noses at the thought of slipping their spies inside Uncle Bahnak's court by pretending to join the Order?"
"I don't know," Vaijon admitted. He walked across to sit at the same table, and Bahzell leaned back comfortably, content to leave the main burden of the argument to the human. "Of course, right this minute I don't believe we're talking about any 'spies,' either," Vaijon went on thoughtfully, lifting the beer pitcher to pour a mug of his own. "You've met all of the Bloody Sword recruits, Hurthang. D'you think any of them are lying about their desire to join the Order?"
"As to that, no," Hurthang admitted grudgingly. "But they're naught but the first wave, I'm thinking. Aye, and we've not let any of 'em swear Sword Oath, yet, either."
Vaijon shook his head, conceding the point. Of course, they hadn't yet sworn any of the other Horse Stealer recruits to full membership in the Order, either. Irregular as Bahzell's attitude towards rules might be in most respects, he was determined to get the Hurgrum chapter properly organized. In part, Vaijon suspected, that was because he expected it to be greeted with profound reservations, even by its sister chapters (when they discovered its existence), and so he wanted to be certain every procedural concern had been covered. More importantly, however, he was determined to be as certain as possible that all of its members had true vocations for the Order, and so he had insisted each new member must serve a minimum of a three-month novice period before he-or she-would be permitted to swear Sword Oath and become a probationer of the Order.
Unfortunately, that same delay had given some of the original Horse Stealer members-particularly Gharnal-time for some of the awe of Tomanak's visitation to work its way through their system. It wasn't that they felt any less reverence, but as they got further away in time from the direct impact of His presence, the old Horse Stealer-Bloody Sword rivalry had reasserted itself. In less than two months, the first Bloody Sword recruits would have completed their novitiates and be eligible to swear Sword Oath, and Hurthang wasn't the only Horse Stealer who worried about what would happen then.
"No, we haven't let them swear Sword Oath." Vaijon spoke evenly, holding Hurthang's eyes with his own. "But I was under the impression that that was to give them time to be certain of their vocations, not as a way to show our distrust of them."
Hurthang flushed darkly, and his ears folded halfway down against his skull. He opened his mouth quickly, then shut it again and grabbed up his beer, instead. He took a long, deep pull, and Vaijon went on in a more soothing tone.
"It's not that I don't understand your concerns, Hurthang. I do. But Bahzell is right about who the Order must accept, and I'd be inclined to think anyone would hesitate to offer Sword Oath if they meant to break it, given that Tomanak appeared in person to acknowledge us as His own. I mean, Hal^ashu, at least, knows that's exactly what happened, and if he's managed to convince Churnazh of the truth, then I'd think neither of them would want to risk angering the God. They've got enough problems already, the way this war is shaping up, without turning His favor against them. And whatever they might want, I'd think finding someone who would come here at their orders and personally foreswear himself would be even harder."
"Umph." It was Hurthang's turn to lean back, and he rubbed his jaw. "Aye," he admitted at last, grudgingly, "it could be there's something in that. Tomanak knows you're like as not right about Hal^ashu, any road. But Churnazh, now… Churnazh is after being another pot of stew. He's one as might just decide he's in so deep he's naught to worry about in making it deeper, if you take my meaning."
"So I've gathered; that's why I said I didn't know what he might do." Vaijon sipped beer, then lowered the mug and looked Hurthang in the eye once more. "But I do know it's awfully hard to lie to a champion of Tomanak… and that I wouldn't want to be the one who swore Sword Oath falsely!"
A rustle of agreement ran around the hall, and Hurthang's ears cocked. He darted a glance at Bahzell, but Bahzell only smiled and flicked the fingers of a raised hand at Vaijon, explicitly resigning the conversation to him. Hurthang's eyes narrowed, but then he nodded slightly. Ever since Tomanak had taken Vaijon's oath, Bahzell had persistently if unobtrusively thrown the young man deeper and deeper into the organization of the new chapter. And it was taking some throwing, Hurthang reflected. The fact that all of its original members had actually seen their deity accept Vaijon's champion's oath lent his opinions a weight he himself had not yet recognized, but it was obvious he was uncomfortable at putting himself forward. Not unsure about his responsibilities or his own relationship to Tomanak , but cautious lest anyone think he was taking too much upon himself-especially as one of the only two humans in Hurgrum.
"So you're saying we should be having them swear Sword Oath as soon as ever they ask to join us here?" Hurthang asked finally.
"No. Bahzell's right about that, too, especially since this is the first hradani chapter. Any recruits have to be given time to train with us and see all that's involved-and be certain of their own minds-before they make binding commitments. But I think we'd certainly be justified in asking them to state all of their reasons for coming here before the chapter's full brethren… and under oath of truth to Tomanak ."
"Oath to Tomanak , is it?" Hurthang murmured, and it was his turn to smile crookedly. Even those with the least use for the Gods of Light hesitated to swear falsely by Tomanak's name. The War God didn't like people who did that, and rumor credited him with a tendency to let them get killed the next time the opportunity arose.
"That's not such a bad idea at all, Hurthang," Bahzell put in after a moment. "Though it might be best all 'round if it wasn't me as took their oaths." Hurthang looked at him, and he shrugged. "Come what may, I'm still Father's son, and if it should happen as we did have someone Churnazh wanted put in amongst us as a spy, why, I've no doubt at all he'd feel all over justified lying to me about it, oath or no."
"I suppose," Hurthang grumbled, and then turned a baleful look back on Vaijon. "Bahzell's the right of it there," he told the young human. "Say what we will, there's some as would never believe we weren't after being Uncle Bahnak's men if Bahzell were taking their oaths. But that means it would have to be you."
"Me?" Vaijon sat up straighter, eyebrows arching, and Hurthang shrugged.
"We're talking of hradani here, Vaijon, and a good fourth part of 'em Bloody Swords," he explained with exaggerated patience. "And we've just allowed as how Bahzell can't be swearing them in. Well, no more can I, for I'm close enough kin to him to make me suspect, as well, and the same for Gharnal-assuming he could be keeping his sword sheathed long enough for a Bloody Sword as wasn't already a member of the Order to be saying two words in a row to him! And that, my lad, is leaving us you and Kerry, and would you be so very kind as to tell me just how you think a Bloody Sword would be after reacting to a woman warrior as wants his oath?"
"I don't really see the problem," Vaijon said after a few seconds' thought. This time Hurthang's eyebrows went up in surprise, and Vaijon shrugged. "I'm sure they'd have reservations about her as a warrior, but as you just pointed out yourself, we are talking about hradani. And just who do you people use to administer most of your oaths or judge cases at law?"
"You're right enough there, lad," Bahzell said before his cousin could reply, "but I'm thinking you've missed Hurthang's point. Our women are after being judges and lawyers, aye, and ambassadors and councilors, as well. But they've never been war leaders-not even amongst us Iron Axes-and there's likely not a dozen Bloody Swords in all the world as would even consider giving Oath to Tomanak to such."
"Then they'd better not tell me about it," Vaijon said ominously. "If Kerry's not good enough for them, then-"
"You've been amongst hradani too long, Vaijon!" Hurthang interrupted with a laugh. "There's ways to settle things without swords, and I'm sure that once you've done explaining matters to 'em all right and proper there's not a one of 'em would question Kerry's right to be here. Aye, and if they were to be so inclined, she'd not need the likes of you-or me!-to be trimming out their ears for coin purses her own self." Vaijon blushed, then grinned, and Hurthang shrugged. "But the point is, until they've met her, there's not a one of them would be realizing what she truly is-or believing it, any road. So unless you're minded to cut 'em into collops and be done with it, you'd best make allowances for their prejudices when you're after asking them to swear that first oath."
"It doesn't have to be you or Bahzell," Vaijon protested. "It could be Harkhar or Aerich or Shalach or-"
"Good lads, all of them, and all of 'em hradani," Bahzell agreed for Hurthang. "But not a one of them a champion, and that's after leaving us with only one choice… Milord Champion."
Vaijon closed the mouth he'd just reopened and glared at Bahzell. Then he sighed.
"All right," he agreed. "I'll do it."
Prince Bahnak Karathson opened the waterproof leather tube the mud-spattered courier had handed him and removed the message inside it. His senior officers stepped back to give him room, and the mutter of conversation died into a respectful silence. As Bahnak, most of them had recognized the signet of his third son, Tormach, in the wax sealing the tube, and the letter itself was written in Tormach's hand, as if he'd been unwilling to trust it to a secretary. And as Bahnak ran his eye down the neatly written lines, he could see why that was.
He finished the message and let it roll back up again, then held it in his right hand, tapping it against his left palm as he gazed down at the map. He felt the officers behind him, their eyes on his back, and he could almost taste their tension. All of them were Horse Stealers, and half were his own Iron Axes. But the others were from every major Horse Stealer clan, and they'd had less time to learn his ways than his own Hurgrumese and their closest allies. On the other hand, every one of them knew his methods had produced smashing victories in the last war. Even if the traditionalists among them might cherish private doubts about those methods, no one was going to disparage them openly.
He smiled crookedly at the thought, remembering days when he'd been forced to bellow at the top of his formidable lungs to get even his own clan to listen to his "radical" ideas. He could still recall the first time his father had introduced the concept of maps as weapons of war and the way the conservatives had howled, and his own tactical and command structure innovations had been far more sweeping than that… in the sense of being visible to all, at least. Actually, he'd always believed Karath's use of maps and his insistence on detailed, prebattle planning had been the turning point, even though it had been too subtle for most of his warriors to recognize it as such.
His eyes found the city of Durghazh to Hurgrum's north. Tormach's dispatch confirmed, among other things, that the last clandestine supply train had come in from Daranfel, and Bahnak wondered once again just how Kilthandahknarthas had managed to bribe Haraldahn IV of Daranfel to let his shipments through. Just getting them there must have been bad enough, given spring mud and the state of the roads in most of the Border Kingdoms. Indeed, there were no roads across the Daranfel frontier to Durghaz, and Tormach had been forced to break the heavy wagon loads down into something mules could pack for that nightmare journey. But like most lands with hradani neighbors, Daranfel was far from fond of them. The thought of shipping anything, especially weapons, to Bahnak, should have thrown the entire Daranfel court into a tizzy.
Assuming, of course, that King Haraldahn knew anything about it, Bahnak thought once more. The Daranfelian monarch actively disliked and distrusted hradani-not, unfortunately, without reason. From all accounts, he disliked Horse Stealers less than he disliked Bloody Swords, but he made no great distinction between them, and few merchants would risk alienating the ruling monarch of even a small country. On the other hand, Kilthan of Silver Cavern wasn't just any merchant… and no doubt things would be much simpler all around if he'd simply forgotten to mention his activities to Haraldahn. For that matter, Haraldahn himself might have wanted it that way!
But the exact means by which Kilthan had achieved delivery meant less at the moment than the fact that he'd succeeded in doing it. The forges of Silver Cavern had provided Bahnak with armor, halberds, swords, and axes enough to completely reequip his entire clan's warriors-the better part of ten thousand men. And as they were issued their dwarf-forged steel breastplates and chain haubergeons they had been able to pass their scale and splint armor on to their allies. There might have been some muttering among the other contingents at "making do" with "hand me downs," but any which might have arisen was muted, for all of them knew that Clan Iron Axe's warriors would bear the brunt of the fighting. Besides, the "hand me downs" were far superior to anything most of the other clans had been able to provide their own people in the first place.
They were as ready as they were going to get, Bahnak thought while his mind turned over the rest of Tormach's message. A courier from one of Marglyth's Navahkan spies had staggered into Durghaz, half dead of exhaustion, with word that Churnazh had just executed Hal^ashu and two more of his closest advisers. That message should have been delivered directly to Marglyth here, but Churnazh had decided to smother the countryside between Navahk and Hurgrum with patrols. Indeed, from all accounts, the courier to Tormach must have needed Norfram's own luck just to reach Durghaz. But even though it had been delayed, the report suggested several interesting possibilities.
Most obviously, Churnazh was in even more trouble than Bahnak had yet allowed himself to believe. Tomanak's appearance in Hurgrum and the creation of the first chapter of his Order-again in Hurgrum-under the leadership of one of Bahnak's sons had been enough to rock Churnazh's alliances. Confirmation that Sharna had managed to gain a toehold in Navahk had been another shock and, even with Tomanak's personal assurance that Churnazh himself had known nothing about it, had dealt those alliances yet another blow. And Bahzell's insistence on announcing the truth about the Rage to all hradani-despite, Bahnak thought with a mental grimace, his father's strenuous objections-had left all hradani, Horse Stealer and Bloody Sword alike, enormously in Tomanak's debt… and bestowed tremendous prestige upon His Order. And despite Bahnak's reservations about the timing of the announcement, it had also redounded to his own credit as the prince in whose lands the Order had first established itself. All of which had left Churnazh's position severely battered.
Nor had the erosion of the Navahkan's power base stopped there. Most observers had long since decided Navahk was totally outclassed by its Hurgrumese opponents, and the rumors that someone from outside the lands of the hradani was providing Bahnak with arms and armor had only underscored the difference in their capabilities. Arvahl of Sondur had been the first to change sides, but there were rumbles of disaffection coming from many of Churnazh's other allies. One or two had actually gotten as far as opening clandestine contact with Marglyth. Indeed, a part of Bahnak was tempted to sit back and wait to see how many more of Navahk's allies would fall into his lap without a fight, and the execution of a man like Hal^ashu, who'd been with Churnazh for so many years, only strengthened the temptation. Always assuming the report was accurate.
Bahnak rather suspected it was. Hal^ashu wasn't-hadn't been-a genius, but unlike Churnazh, he'd seen Tomanak with his own eyes, actually spoken to Him. Under the circumstances, it was entirely possible he'd decided it would be suicidal for Navahk to fight Hurgrum. Even if the gods weren't officially on Bahnak's side, they obviously liked him more than they cared for Churnazh. Whether Hal^ashu had simply made the mistake of urging that view too strongly or gone the fatal step further into fomenting some sort of coup hardly mattered compared to the fact that Churnazh had felt compelled to make an example of one of his oldest lieutenants.
But however great the temptation to let Churnazh self-destruct, Bahnak dared not give in to it. The Bloody Swords were off-balance now, divided and led by a ruler who had been grievously weakened. But if Bahnak gave them long enough, someone would get a dagger into Churnazh's back, and he couldn't have that. However neatly it might solve one set of problems, it was all too likely to leave him with another, worse set, because whoever replaced Churnazh would almost have to be in a stronger position than the current Prince of Navahk. He could hardly be in a weaker one, after all!
No, Bahnak couldn't stand by and wait for someone else to topple Churnazh. He had to move now if he meant to end the eternal, bickering warfare between Bloody Sword and Horse Stealer once and for all. And, he admitted to himself, if he wanted to put a true crown on his own head and his sons' heads.
"The roads, Gurlahn?" he asked without looking up. He hadn't raised his voice, but it sounded thunderous as it broke the waiting silence, and Gurlahn Karathson, his only living brother, cleared his throat.
"Clear, at last report," he replied. Gurlahn had lost his left leg at the knee fifteen years before. Unable to take the field effectively thereafter, he'd become his brother's chief of staff, and he flipped through a pad of notes.
"There's no snow left," he said. "The scouts are after reporting the direct road from Hurgrum to Navahk is still naught but water and mud, but the plain between Gorchcan and Sondur is better. We'll not make wonderful speed however we go about it, but at least we've no cavalry to be worrying with."
"Um." Bahnak nodded, still gazing at the map. "And the Escarpment?"
Some of his officers looked at one another at that, but Gurlahn showed no surprise. The Escarpment-the stupendous stone wall where the Wind Plain heaved its mass up from the lowlands-was the traditional barrier between the Sothoii and the Horse Stealers. It was nearly vertical along its vast length, and close to a thousand feet high. There were very few routes by which cavalry could ascend or descend the Escarpment, and the upper ends of most of them had been heavily fortified by the Sothoii. Sufficiently determined infantry could make the climb in quite a few more places, and over the centuries, the Horse Stealers had found virtually all of them.
"From all accounts, the spring thaw's just now getting started atop the Wind Plain," Gurlahn said. "The most of the routes up and down the Escarpment are after being pretty well neck-deep in run-off the now, and should be for some weeks to come."
"Um," Bahnak grunted again. He sensed the speculation his question had stirred, but he ignored it. Whatever his officers might think, he had absolutely no interest in climbing the Escarpment to attack the Sothoii. There hadn't been a large-scale Horse Stealer attack on the Wind Plain in the better part of twenty years, and he had disallowed even small raids by his own Iron Axes for the past ten. Unfortunately, he'd been less successful at convincing his fellow Horse Stealer clan lords to share his restraint. Bahnak himself wanted only peaceful relations with the Sothoii, for he had worries enough amongst his own people, but he couldn't be positive the Sothoii realized that. Still, as long as the Escarpment remained impassable, he could feel fairly confident about the security of his own rear while he dealt with Churnazh. He hoped.
But that consideration added still more point to his urge to move quickly, and Gurlahn's report on the state of the roads promised him at least a short term advantage if he could seize it. Unlike Horse Stealers, Bloody Swords were close enough to human-sized to make decent heavy cavalry, and they tried to use their mounted men to offset the larger stature and greater strength of the Horse Stealer infantry. But Horse Stealers on foot would be more mobile in mud conditions than cavalry mounts.
"All right, then," he said, and drew a deep breath as he turned to look at Barodahn and Tharak Morchanson, his two senior field commanders. "Barodahn, I'll want you and your lads on the road to Gorchcan by dawn. You know what needs doing from there."
"Aye, Da," Barodahn agreed gravely, and Bahnak turned to Hurthang's father.
"I've another job for you, Tharak. One without so much glory-to be starting out, maybe-but just as important. I'll want your lads to start wading through the mud straight for Navahk. From all reports-" he waved at the pins stuck into the map "-old Churnazh has his main force massed against a direct attack, likely enough because that's what we were after doing to him last time. He's a flank guard out against Sondur, but he looks to be expecting the main attack from here, and it's your job to keep him thinking that. Hit him hard, and drive him if you've the chance, but so long as you're keeping him looking your way and not peeping over his right shoulder at Barry, you've done your part."
"Aye, Milord." Tharak nodded, and Bahnak smiled with sudden warmth, for there was no resentment in Tharak's level reply. Like the other officers in this room-even the ones from clans other than Iron Axe-Tharak knew victory was what truly mattered. He would play his role and play it well, even if the glory was going to go to someone else's flanking movement, and how many hradani princes could expect that of their captains?
"It's long enough we've been waiting on this, lads," he said simply, his eyes sweeping over all of his officers. "My father-aye, and most of your fathers, too, come to that-worked their whole lives for this day. Now it's come 'round at last, and I know there's not a one of you as isn't feeling it. But remember this, all of you. Bloody Swords or no, it's our own kind we're fighting, and I'll have no massacres." He gave Uralahk Gahrnason a particularly stern look, for the Plains Bear Clan general from Gorchcan had something of a reputation for transforming bothersome prisoners into good enemies, but Uralahk only nodded without reservation.
"Churnazh I want alive, if we can be taking him so, though I'll settle for his head at need," Bahnak went on, "and his surviving sons, as well. The same is after holding for any of the other princes, too, and I'll have the head myself of any man who's not after letting Lord Brandark of Navahk or any of his kin surrender, should it happen they so choose. And I'll be expecting you to take prisoners amongst Churnazh's regulars, as well, for it's not by their own choice the most of 'em are fighting us in the first place. But see to it that all your men are after knowing the colors and emblems of his personal guard. They're every one of 'em where they chose to be, and you'll know as well as I what he and they have been after doing to their own folk all these years. We'll give quarter where it's asked for by any decent fighting man, but for those as served that dung-eating, black-hearted bastard of their own will-"
He held out one hand, palm down before him, and slowly clenched it into a fist. It was the same gesture a judge used in a hradani court to pronounce sentence of death, and a soft, hungry snarl rippled around the room as he smiled coldly.