Bahzell stood atop the wall and watched the small group of men emerge from the boulder field that choked the sharp bend in the Gullet and start down the trail on foot. A white flag hung limp from a lance shaft above them, but from the way they moved, they were none too sure anyone in Charhan's Despair knew what a white flag meant.
He smiled grimly at the thought. The sun was moving steadily farther into the west, and shadows were beginning to envelop the Gullet. The sinuous passage was narrow and deep, and the narrower switchbacks and bottlenecks were already in twilight, while the wider spots were like golden beads of light strung on a chain of shade. Like the shade which covered the boulders behind the truce party… and hid the archers he had no doubt at all were lurking there.
Well, that was all right with him. He'd sent Garuth and his picket on down the Gullet in order to make this purely a matter of the Order and the Sothoii, but he still had over a hundred heavy crossbows and arbalests of his own tucked away inside the rough fort. He could get no more than forty of them onto the front wall at any one time, perhaps, but that would be more than enough to skewer the Sothoii messengers the instant anyone put an arrow into him.
Not that he had any particular desire to see anyone skewered.
He glanced at his companions. Hurthang stood at his left, wearing the surcoat of the Order and carrying its banner while Vaijon stood at his right. Hradani being hradani, there had been some fairly heated debate over precisely who should accompany him. Gharnal, in particular, had argued that Hurthang had no business out there, since, as the chapter's second in command, it would be up to him to take over if something happened to Bahzell. Kaeritha had been scarcely less vociferous in her insistence that she should go with him instead of Vaijon. Everyone had been able to see the value of including a human in any truce party which hoped to convince the Sothoii they truly were the Order of Tomanak , but she was the senior champion present. As such, it was she who should take the risk beside Bahzell.
"I've no doubt you've the right of it and all," Bahzell had told her finally, "but we're talking of Sothoii here, Kerry! I've troubles enough without trying to be cramming a belted knight as is also a woman down their craws!"
She'd subsided at that, and her acquiescence had left Gharnal with little choice but to do the same, yet Bahzell wasn't fooled. Assuming they all lived through this, both of them would find their own ways to get even with him, probably sooner rather than later.
He smiled again, less grimly, at the thought, and nodded to his companions.
"Let's be going," he said quietly, and started down to meet the enemy.
Gods, that's the biggest hradani I've ever seen in my life! Sir Festian squinted into the westering sun and managed not to stare at the giant advancing towards him, but it was hard. He had to be at least seven and a half feet tall, and he looked like a mountain in armor. In very good armor, Festian noted suddenly-better than he'd ever seen on a hradani… or, for that matter, on most Sothoii nobles. And it had clearly been made specifically to fit its wearer, not cobbled together or looted from someone else.
He was still turning that over in his mind when Haladhan hissed beside him.
"Toragan! That's a man over there!" Sir Mathian's cousin gasped.
For an instant, the significance of the remark failed to register, but then Festian's eyes snapped around to look where Haladhan was pointing. Like the Lord Warden, Haladhan refused to apply the word "man" to anyone other than another human, although he might make a few grudging exceptions for certain dwarves. Festian considered that pointlessly stupid, but his own astonishment overwhelmed the familiar flash of disgust as he saw the richly dressed, golden-haired young human with the elaborately plumed helm.
Well, he thought wryly, whatever Mathian might have thought before he sent us out here, this certainly isn't your typical bunch of hradani!
The Sothoii were close enough for Bahzell to see their faces now. There were six of them, although four were obviously armsmen, not knights or nobles, and his impassive expression hid a mental smile of glee as he saw them trying not to stare at Vaijon. At his insistence, Vaijon had brought along the pick of his wardrobe, and while that might now be only a shadow of what it once had been, it remained impressive. His embroidered surcoat glittered, sunlight flashing off its gold and silver bullion thread; the tall plumes of his helmet nodded as he walked; and the gems adorning his sword hilt seemed to flame with an inner light all their own.
Come to think on it, it just might be they do have a light of their own, a corner of his mind reflected. It is after being a champion's blade, now isn't it just?
That thought carried him the last few paces forward, and he stopped three yards short of the burly young man in the center of the Sothoii delegation. The hard-eyed youngster was unusually heavy-set and broad for his people, but like most Sothoii men, he stood only a little over six feet tall, a few inches shorter than Vaijon and much shorter than Bahzell or Hurthang. He had the fair complexion common to most of his people, although his hair was dark, not the more usual blond or red, and his face was set in rigid lines of contempt as he surveyed Bahzell and his companions.
"And a good afternoon to you," Bahzell rumbled, breaking the silence before it could stretch out too far.
"I am Sir Haladhan Deepcrag, cousin and Marshal of Mathian Redhelm, Lord Warden of Glanharrow," the burly young knight declared haughtily. His voice was abrupt and harsh, with a cutting edge which made the fingers of Bahzell's sword hand tingle. "Who are you, and by what right do you block our path?"
The older knight standing to Haladhan's left winced visibly. Bahzell glanced at him, then tilted his head, ears cocked, to consider Haladhan as he might have examined some new species of bug. He let the silence drag out once more, watching the young Sothoii's flush darken, then replied in deliberately calm tones.
"Why, as to that, Sir Haladhan Deepcrag, I'm called Bahzell Bahnakson, and if we're to speak of blocked paths, it's in my mind to be wondering just why it is you and your lot seem so all-fired anxious to be creeping down the Gullet in the first place." He showed strong, white teeth in what could have been called a smile. "I'm thinking there's just a mite many of you for a social call, and surely your Lord Warden wouldn't be so ill-mannered as to be coming to dinner without sending word ahead, now would he?"
"Sir Mathian is not answerable to such as you!" Haladhan spat. "He comes and goes as he will!"
"Does he, now?" Bahzell rounded his eyes and let his ears stand straight up. "Why, we've something in common, then, for so do I, as well." His expression hardened suddenly, and his voice deepened. "And just this moment, where I'm willing to be going is right here," he rumbled, and pointed at the ground on which he stood.
"Indeed?" Haladhan glanced about, then curled his lip. "If that's what you wish, I'm sure Sir Mathian can accommodate you. It looks a little stony for graves, but no doubt the buzzards will be glad for the feast!"
"No doubt," Bahzell said. "But I'm thinking you might be thinking hard and long before you've the making of a mistake your Lord Warden will be a long time regretting. I'm not so certain at all, at all, that Tomanak will be pleased to be hearing as how he went and slaughtered an entire chapter of himself's Order."
"You?" Haladhan stared at Bahzell, then uttered a short, contemptuous laugh.
"Aye, myself," Bahzell agreed, and swept his hand to include Hurthang and Vaijon. "And my sword brothers, of course."
"You can't bluff us, hradani!" Haladhan spat. "I don't know where you found this traitor," he sneered at Vaijon, "but you're no more the Order of Tomanak than I am!"
"Now that's where you're wrong, friend," Bahzell said softly, "and you'd best take me seriously. Aye, we're hradani right enough, the most of us-and Horse Stealers, for the most part, too. But we're also after being the Order of Tomanak , sword sworn to him when he was after appearing himself in Hurgrum this month past."
"Nonsense!" Haladhan shot back, but there was just the tiniest edge of uncertainty in his tone.
"I'd ask you not to be questioning my word, truce flag or no." Bahzell's voice was mild enough, but his eyes weren't, and Haladhan shifted uneasily and stepped back a half pace without even realizing it. "I've no doubt you're finding that a mite hard to be taking in, yet it's true enough. And it's as a champion of Tomanak I stand here, Sir Haladhan, to ask you and your Lord Warden by what right you're after bringing war and destruction to those as haven't attacked you… and who you've not declared war upon, either."
"I don't bel-" Haladhan began, then stopped. "You claim to be a champion of Tomanak ," he went on in a slightly less caustic tone. "I… find that difficult to believe. And even if it were true, you have no right to question Sir Mathian's actions."
"I'm having every right there is," Bahzell told him flatly. "Both as a hradani, who's after seeing a hostile army marching against his folk; and as a son of Prince Bahnak of Hurgrum, who's a duty to guard his people; and most of all, as a champion of Tomanak sworn to protect the weak and the helpless from those as think there's honor in murdering women and children while their own warriors are away."
Haladhan flushed, and his eyes fell for the first time. But he shook the moment off and summoned up a fresh glare.
"That sounds very fine, hradani, but Sothoii women and children have been murdered by hradani in their time!"
"So they have, and if you're minded to be keeping the slaughter going, you're a fool," Bahzell said dispassionately.
"Oh, no." Haladhan's voice was cold. "We have no intention at all of keeping the slaughter going. We mean to end it, once and for all!"
"Ah?" Bahzell cocked his head, eyes cold. "So this is what the Sothoii are after coming to, is it now? A pack of cowards and murderers-brave enough to be burning down farms and towns and butchering them as can't fight back, but only when those as might have protected them are safe out of their way!"
"How dare you talk to-" Haladhan began furiously, but Bahzell slashed a hand through the air, cutting him short.
"It's not after sounding so pretty put that way, is it now?" he asked softly. "It may be you'd not thought of it in just those words, Sir Haladhan Deepcrag, but just you be thinking on them now, for that's the truth of it. You may not believe me a champion of Tomanak , but be that how it may, just you be asking yourself what Tomanak would be saying to such as you and your precious Lord Warden are having in mind to do here."
"I-" Haladhan stopped himself, glaring at Bahzell, then spat on the ground. "That for you-and for Tomanak , too!" he snarled. " 'Women and children,' is it? Well, nits make lice, hradani, and we've suffered your kind too long as it is!"
"I see." Bahzell gazed down at the furious young knight, then swept his companions with his eyes. "Hear me now, all of you," he said finally, his deep voice flat, "for I'll say this only the once. The lot of you can be turning around and marching back up the Gullet, and no harm done. Or you can be staying right where you are, and again, no harm done. But you'll not go another furlong down this trail without you come through us, and whether you're minded to admit it or no, we are the Order of Tomanak . I've no doubt you can kill us all, for we're but his servants, and mortal enough, the lot of us. But you'll not find it so easy as you may be thinking, and himself-and the rest of the Order-won't be so very pleased to hear as how you've done it. Go back and show you've the sense to turn around, Sir Haladhan… or come ahead and see how many of your own will be dying with us."
He turned and stalked back to Charhan's Despair without another word.
"Well that was a masterpiece of diplomacy," Brandark remarked as Bahzell climbed down the inside of the wall. The Horse Stealer cocked an ear at him, and he shrugged. "Your voice does tend to carry, Bahzell. Tell me, do you think there was any incentive to slaughter us that you didn't give him?"
"As to that, I doubt he'd any need of incentive I might have been giving him," Bahzell replied. "And it was plain enough he'd no interest at all, at all, in talking his way to anything else. But he's not after being the commander of those lads, either, and he wasn't alone. I'm thinking as how that older fellow will be one as makes sure whoever is in command is after getting the whole tale. But if they're so set on slaughtering hradani they're minded to take on the Order to do it, then there's not an argument in all the world that I could be making as would stop them, now is there?"
"I suppose not," Brandark admitted. He stood gazing out over the wall, rubbing the tip of his cropped ear while the sun sank still lower and the shadows deepened. "I do wish I could hear how their commander reacts to your version of diplomacy when he hears it, though," he said finally.
"Those bastards! Those thieving, murderous, lying, Phrobus-damned bastards!" Sir Mathian slammed his gauntleted fist against the hilt of his sabre, and his face was twisted with rage. "How dare they threaten me-us!"
Sir Festian glanced sideways at Sir Kelthys. The facts in Haladhan's version of the parley had been accurate enough, but the marshal had allowed contempt and hatred to color his report. In his turn, Festian had tried to soften the more vitriolic of Haladhan's remarks. He'd had to proceed carefully, though, and while he was confident he'd recounted the entire conversation accurately, he hadn't been at all sure Mathian had bothered to listen to him.
Now he was sure the Lord Warden hadn't. He knew the signs, and his stomach tightened as he watched Mathian working himself up into a towering fury.
"I'll kill them all!" he shouted. "I'll kill every murderous one of the bastards, and then I'll burn their stinking towns to the ground! I'll-"
"A moment, Milord." Kelthys' voice was so calm that Mathian's mouth snapped shut in astonishment. He wheeled to face the wind rider, interrupted in mid-tirade, and Kelthys shrugged. "I understand your anger, Milord, just as I understand why you wish to insure the hradani are never able to threaten the Kingdom. But even so, I think it behooves us to at least consider the possibility that this Bahzell is telling the truth."
"The truth? You think a hradani could be telling the truth when he claims to be a champion of Tomanak ?"
"I think all things are possible-theoretically, at least, Milord," Kelthys said serenely. "The priests and philosophers would have us believe so, at any rate. Some are more probable than others, no doubt, and I must confess that, as you, I find the thought of a hradani champion less likely than most. But I also doubt that many men would make such a claim falsely. If Tomanak failed to punish them directly for it, no doubt His Order would do so as soon as it heard."
"The whorseon is lying to stop us from hitting his gods-damned kind while their warriors are away," Mathian said flatly. "Phrobus, Kelthys! He's got no more than two hundred warriors down there. He knows he can't stop us from killing all of them any time we choose to, so of course he's lying! It's a bluff, and nothing more!"
"With all due respect, Milord, I don't think it is," Kelthys said, and now his voice was flat… and loud enough for the other officers clustered around to hear. "I believe we should at least consider the possibility that he's telling us the truth. At the very least, we should not risk arousing the justified anger of the Order of Tomanak -to which, I remind you, the King's own brother Yurokhas has sworn Sword Oath-without first consulting with Baron Tellian, in whose name we are acting."
Mathian stared at the wind rider, his face bone white, and Festian held his breath. The Lord Warden of Glanharrow ground his teeth, and then he spat on the ground.
"I thought you a man, Kelthys!" he snarled.
"At least I am not a boy driven by his own unheeding passion," Kelthys replied, and his own tone was like a slap in the face. Mathian's hand darted to his sabre, and steel scraped, but Festian's hand snapped out and caught his wrist before he could draw it.
"Calmly, Milord! Calmly!" he said urgently. "This is neither the time nor the place for us to begin killing our own!"
Rage quivered in every sinew of Mathian's body, and muscles ridged like iron lumps along his jawline as he glared at the wind rider.
"Very well, Kelthys," he ground out finally. "You've given your advice. Now stand aside. Those of us who aren't puling cowards have work to do."
"I think not, Milord," Kelthys said softly, and watched Mathian's eyes flare. "You are our Lord Warden. In time of emergency and in defense of the realm, you may command us to do your will, and any disobedience on our part is high treason. But, Milord, there is no threat to the realm. We stand not upon its borders, but halfway down the Escarpment. Tomanak or no, the hradani who face us cannot possibly fight their way through us to invade the Wind Plain, and if it is treason for us to disobey you in time of invasion, it is also treason for you to use the forces which you command solely by right of the fealty you have sworn to Baron Tellian and, through him, to the King himself, to invade another realm."
"Treason?" Mathian whispered. "You dare to accuse me of treason?"
"Not yet, Milord," Kelthys replied gravely. "However, if you-or any of these other lords who follow you-continue on this course, then, yes. Treason is an ugly word, but the only one which will apply."
"Curse you!" Mathian snapped, and whirled to Haladhan. "I want his head for mutiny in the face of the enemy!" he screamed.
"Milord, I-" Haladhan began, and then stopped as a sabre whispered from its sheath. He turned to Kelthys, hand dropping to his own hilt, but it was not the wind rider who had drawn. One of the lords from the Tharkonswald District had stepped in front of Kelthys and stood facing Mathian with the back edge of his naked blade resting on his right shoulder. Another sabre was drawn, and another. In the space of less than a minute, almost half the minor lords who'd followed Mathian had formed a circle around Kelthys with weapons ready. No one said a word, but there was no need to.
Mathian stared at them, seeing his plan crumble, and something worse than rage boiled within him.
"So," he said, his voice cold and empty. "There are that many traitors among you, are there? Very well. Go. Go, all of you! Go!"His voice was no longer cold or empty, and he spat again. "Take this other cursed traitor with you, and may Krahana lick his bones! I'll deal with him-and all of you-later! But for now, I command those of you who still know your duty to summon your men! We've got a nest of hradani to kill!"