"What d'you suppose is keeping them?"
Brandark's elaborately casual tone fooled none of his listeners. He stood atop their rough rampart with Bahzell, Kaeritha, Vaijon, and Hurthang, gazing up the Gullet, and bright, cool sunlight flooded down over them. If anyone up there decided to fire a sudden flight of arrows, he could do enormous damage to the defenders' command structure. But somehow none of them expected that to happen, not after all the confused shouting and general bedlam which had followed those predawn bugle calls. Of course, they had no idea what was about to happen.
"I suppose they might have overslept after all the hubbub," Vaijon said judiciously, striving to match the Bloody Sword's tone, and Hurthang chuckled.
"So they might, but I'd not bet money on it. Still and all, something must have been after changing their plans, for I've not doubt at all that they were minded to be taking our ears."
"No more have I," Bahzell told him, "and-"
He broke off suddenly, and the others stiffened beside him as they saw movement up the Gullet. A group of figures emerged from the boulder field, and Vaijon smothered something that sounded remarkably like a curse.
"Tomanak ! How in the name of all the gods did they get a horse that size through there?"
"They didn't, lad," Bahzell said softly. Vaijon glanced at him oddly, and he grinned as yet another rider picked his cautious way clear of the boulder field. "Those are coursers, Vaijon."
"But-" Vaijon began to protest, then stopped as the sheer size of the "horses" registered. There were dismounted men with them, and the head of the tallest man out there didn't reach the shoulder of the smallest of the half-dozen coursers. And then a seventh rider came around the boulder field, on a much smaller mount, and Bahzell laughed.
"Well, now! It seems I may've been being just a mite hasty. That fellow trailing along behind is on a horse, and one I'm thinking I know."
"You do, hey?" Hurthang looked at him skeptically, then shrugged. "So what are you thinking to do now?"
"Why, if they're minded to call on us all sociable like, we ought to be meeting them," Bahzell replied, and strode down the rough wall with long, swinging strides.
The others followed, all but Hurthang scrambling down with considerably greater difficulty, and he walked down to the foot of the slope atop which Charhan's Despair sat. Then he stopped and waited, arms folded, for the Sothoii to reach him.
It didn't take them long. Vaijon and Brandark, neither of whom had ever seen a courser before, stared at the huge creatures. It was impossible for anything that size to be simultaneously graceful and delicate, yet somehow the coursers managed it, and neither of them could figure out how. Bahzell, however, was focused on other concerns-like the tall, red-haired man in silver-washed plate armor mounted on the chestnut stallion at the head of the Sothoii party. The rider nodded to Vaijon and Brandark gravely, as if acknowledging a reaction he'd seen many times, but his eyes were on Bahzell.
"Good morning," he said. A neatly trimmed beard and mustache showed in his open-faced helm, and his voice was surprisingly light for such a big man, but it had the rap of someone accustomed to being obeyed. "You must be Bahnak's son," he went on, looking Bahzell straight in the face.
"Aye, I am that," Bahzell agreed, and glanced past him at the single man mounted on a regular war horse. "And a good morning to you, too, Wencit," he said.
"The same to you," the wizard replied calmly, wildfire eyes glowing. Then he smiled. "I told you I had an errand of my own to run on the Wind Plain, didn't I?"
"So you did," Bahzell said, then returned his gaze to the man on the chestnut courser. "And who might you be, if I might be asking?" he inquired politely.
"Tellian, Baron and Warden of the West Riding," the wind rider said simply. One of Bahzell's friends inhaled sharply, but he only nodded, as if he'd expected that answer.
"And would it happen it was you as was sending these lads-" he twitched his head at the bodies littering the slope "-down the Gullet?" he asked mildly.
"It was not," Tellian said shortly. Then he showed just a flash of white teeth under his mustache. "If it had been, I assure you the affair would have been better managed."
"Would it, then?" Bahzell cocked his head, then snorted. "Aye, like enough it would. Still and all, you're after being here now, aren't you just?"
Tellian nodded, and it was his turn to let his eyes sweep the dead men. His expression was grim, but he said nothing for several seconds, and Bahzell waited silently. The Kingdom of the Sothoii was unique in that its highest noble rank after the king himself was that of baron. Legend said that was because the original Sothoii settlers had been led to the Wind Plain by a single baron who had escaped the Fall of Kontovar. According to the tales, he had refused to promote himself to count or duke as so many other refugee leaders had done, and that had set a tradition which the Sothoii still declined to break. Bahzell had no idea if the story was accurate, but whatever the reason, the man before him was one of the four greatest nobles of the Sothoii, with a "barony" anyone else would have called a kingdom in its own right.
"I was not aware of what Lord Glanharrow intended." Tellian's sudden statement snatched Bahzell back to the surface of his own thoughts. "Had I been, I would have commanded him to abandon his plans. In which case-"
He stopped again and shook his head.
"No, that's not quite true," he said in the voice of a man scrupulously intent on getting his facts straight. "I did learn what he intended, but not until Wencit arrived to tell me. And I regret to say I didn't believe him at first. Not entirely." His face darkened. "I made my own preparations, but I had my own agents keeping watch on Glanharrow, and I thought I was better served by their reports than by whatever Wencit might have heard from afar. What I didn't realize was that with one exception-" he turned his head and smiled briefly at another wind rider, this one on a courser of midnight black "-my agents had come to share Lord Glanharrow's intentions. And so, this-"
He waved one hand at the bodies, and Bahzell nodded once more. But the Horse Stealer's eyes were hard, and he twitched his own head back towards the fort behind him.
"Aye, and so this… and so the thirty-seven lads of mine dead back yonder, as well," he said grimly. Tellian's head snapped up, and his eyes flashed angrily, but then he clenched his jaw and chopped his head in a nod of his own.
"That, also," he acknowledged, and silence fell once more.
"So would you be telling me just what it is you're minded to do now you are here?" Bahzell asked after a moment.
"I don't know," Tellian admitted. "I never intended for this to happen, yet it has. Whoever began it, both you and we have dead to mourn, and here I am, halfway down the Gullet with an army at my back. Under the circumstances, many at Court-and in other districts of my own Riding-would say the rational thing to do is to press on. The war has been started, and we hold the advantage at the moment. And if we secure control of the Gullet so that we can pass men freely up and down it, we'll continue to hold it."
"Aye, I can be seeing that," Bahzell conceded levelly. "It's in your mind as how my father isn't one to be looking lightly at this, come what may and whoever was starting it. It might just be he'd be minded to be hitting back at the West Riding for it, but he's his hands full with Churnazh the now. So if you were to keep right on going, why, you might put paid to all his plans-even bring him down for Churnazh-and then you'd not have to worry at all, at all, about what he might or might not have been after doing. Would that be about the size of it?"
"It would," Tellian agreed with a grim smile.
"Well, I can't say as how I'm surprised," Bahzell said frankly, "for it might be I'd think much the same in your boots. But it's not so simple as all that. I told your Lord Glanharrow as how we wouldn't be moving for him, and no more will we stand aside for you. And whatever he may have been thinking, we are the Order of Tomanak . So you be thinking long and hard before you're deciding to press on."
One or two of the men with Tellian stirred angrily, but the baron only shrugged.
"Whatever I may decide, Milord Champion, I, for one, have no doubt at all that you and your companions serve the War God," he said. One of the dismounted Sothoii made a sound of disbelief, but Tellian quelled any outburst with an icy frown. "When Wencit of Rum vouches for someone's truthfulness, I have no intention of questioning it. But that still leaves us with a problem. You may belong to the Order of Tomanak , but you are also all hradani." Vaijon stirred beside Bahzell, and Tellian paused. Then, for the first time, he smiled with a trace of true humor. "Well, most of you are," he corrected himself.
"And your point is, Baron?" Kaeritha's question was sharp, and Tellian turned to face her.
"My point, Milady, is that while you and I might be inclined to see this matter as a case in which the Order of Tomanak intervened, precisely as it ought, to prevent an unprovoked massacre of those unable to defend themselves, others might not. I feel quite certain there will be some at Court who will see it only as a clash between hradani and Sothoii and be furious if I do anything but continue the attack. And there will be others who will fear, legitimately perhaps, that Prince Bahzell's people will see it that way, as well, and demand vengeance. That, after all, is the way of border warfare, is it not? Both sides can always justify present atrocities on the basis of past wrongs done to their fathers, or their grandfathers… or their great-great-great-grandfathers."
"So they can," Wencit put in dryly, "and especially if they're hradani or Sothoii." Bahzell and Tellian frowned at him almost in unison, and he laughed. "I rest my case!" he declared, and human and hradani darted looks at one another, then looked away quickly.
"No doubt the wizard is correct enough about that, Milord Baron," another wind rider put in, "but for myself, I'll trust a hradani-and especially a Horse Stealer hradani-no further than the end of my own lance." Bahzell's face tightened, but several others, especially among the dismounted Sothoii, muttered in agreement.
"Perhaps not, Hathan," Tellian said in a flat, discouraging voice, "but I am the one who must decide what happens here today, not you!"
"With all due respect, Wind Brother," Hathan said in an oddly formal tone, "the decision you make may affect all Sothoii. And we are both wind borne, you and I. If I may not speak my mind to you, then who may?"
Tellian flushed and opened his mouth as if to snap back an answer, then paused and closed it. He glowered at the other for a moment, then nodded grudgingly and waved a hand at Bahzell, as if resigning the conversation with him to Hathan. The other wind rider made a soft sound, and his courser flicked its ears and stepped daintily forward until it stood directly before Bahzell. Unlike any of the Sothoii, the hradani seemed almost properly sized for the huge creature, and he stood motionless, arms once again crossed, and met Hathan's gaze levelly.
"You claim to be a champion of Tomanak ," Hathan said finally, speaking to Bahzell as if no one else were present, "and Milord Baron and Wencit of Rum both accept your word. Very well, so will I, hradani. Yet you might be ten times a champion, and still you would be hradani, and a Horse Stealer, and the son of the ruler of the Horse Stealers." Hurthang and Vaijon both stirred angrily, but Hathan ignored them, his unflinching gray eyes locked to Bahzell's. "My wind brother has said memories are long in border war. So they are, and I tell you this, Bahzell Bahnakson: the Sothoii will never forget that your people have raided ours from the first day ever we set foot upon the Wind Plain. Nor will we forget the very name in which you glory: Horse Stealers, the barbarians who raid our herds, who steal the horses we love almost as our own children and devour them like beasts of prey! What say you to that, Champion of Tomanak ?"
"Say?" Bahzell cocked his head, and his brown eyes were just as hard as Hathan's gray ones. "I'll say as how I 'claim' to be himself's champion because I am. But, aye, you've the right of it when you call me hradani and Horse Stealer. And Wencit has the right of it when he's calling hradani nigh as stubborn and long in the memory as you Sothoii. True enough all of that is, true as death, but you've set the cart before the horse for the rest of it, Wind Rider. Aye, we're after calling ourselves 'Horse Stealers,' and proud of the name, too, for never another name in all Norfressa was harder earned. But let's be telling the whole tale, shall we? Aye, we were after raiding your herds, and stealing your horses-yes, and eating them, too-for we'd no choice at all, at all… but it wasn't my folk as began the raiding." Hathan shifted in the saddle, and many of the other Sothoii muttered angrily, but Bahzell ignored them and glared straight into Hathan's eyes.
"My folk were here before ever yours came next or nigh the Wind Plain, Wind Rider, for none of the other Races of Man would have us. Warrior, woman, and child, we were driven off wherever we'd managed to fight our way ashore after the Fall, and if we were after dying in the wilderness, so much the better. And so we ended here, at the foot of the Wind Plain, on land no one else was wanting and too far from the 'civilized' folk for their warriors to be creeping up on us at night and burning our roofs over our heads while our children slept!"
The anger in his deep voice dwarfed the Sothoii's mutterings, and his brown eyes blazed like iron fresh from the forge.
"And what came of us here, Milord Wind Rider? What happened when first your folk brought their herds and horses to the Wind Plain? My folk remember, if yours are after forgetting. We remember the Starving Time, when your warriors came down off the Wind Plain like a pestilence. When the barns burned, and the harvests with them, and our babes starved at their mother's breasts. Aye, we remember it, Hathan of the Sothoii, and we're after taking our name from what your kind forced upon us, for we'd no choice but to raid your herds for food! It was that or be watching our children starve, and I'm thinking your own choice would've been no different from ours!"
"Nonsense!" Hathan shot back. "The earliest tales make it perfectly plain that it was your kind who raided us! And-"
"Excuse me, Hathan." Wencit didn't raise his voice, but something in it snapped all eyes to him. He paused a moment, as if waiting to be certain he had the attention of all of them, and then he shrugged. "I'm afraid Bahzell's version is the more accurate, Hathan," the wild wizard said almost gently. "Oh, his ancestors were no saints, but it was yours who began the war between you."
"But-" Hathan paused, mouth frozen in the open position. Then he shook his head. "But that's not possible," he protested. "All of our tales, all our histories-"
"Are wrong," Wencit said with that same note of gentle regret. All the Sothoii, even Tellian, stared at him in disbelief, and he sighed. "Unlike any of the rest of you, I was here at the time," he told them. "I warned Baron Markhos of the presence of Bahzell's ancestors when he set out for the Wind Plain, and I urged him to keep clear of them-to leave them in peace so long as they left him in peace. But he didn't. Like almost all the refugees, he hated the hradani for what they'd done in the Carnadosans' service. It didn't matter to him that they'd had no choice. It was simpler to hate than to understand them, and so when his scouts reported the locations of the Horse Stealers' ancestors, he waited until winter was near and the harvests were in, and then-exactly as Bahzell says-he ordered their barns burned to starve them out."
Total silence ruled the Gullet when he paused. The Sothoii sat or stood frozen in shock, and he sighed.
"It was an ugly time, my friends," he said sadly. "An ugly time for all of us. But I tell you this, Hathan Shieldarm: of all the Races of Man, the hradani's suffering at the hands of the Carnadosans was the cruelest. They were enslaved, driven and goaded by spells you cannot imagine, used and discarded and broken into slavering beasts which remembered being more than beasts yet could not fight the sorcery locked upon them. And then, when a handful of them escaped to Norfressa against all but impossible odds, the other Races of Man fell upon them and slaughtered them like animals, too filled with hate for what the Carnadosans had forced them to do to heed me, or Duke Kormak, or Ernos of Saramantha when we told them the hradani had had no choice.
"So, yes, they raided your herds, for your ancestors had left them nothing else to eat. And, yes, they slaughtered and ate your horses, as well as your cattle. Indeed, they preferred horsemeat to beef, for they knew how much you loved your horses, and they treasured anything they could do-anything at all-to strike back at the warriors who'd tried to exterminate them. It was your people who first called them 'Horse Stealer,' Hathan, but there was no name in all the world they would have preferred, for they, too, knew how to hate, and, oh but your ancestors gave them cause to."
He fell silent, and, one by one, the Sothoii turned away from him, looking at one another in shock and confusion. It never occurred to them to doubt Wencit's word, even though it turned everything they had ever been taught on its head, for he was Wencit of Rum. And, as he said, unlike any of them he had been there.
Bahzell shared their shock, though in a different way. Hradani and Sothoii had each known for centuries how the other's version of history had differed from their own, yet none of them had ever expected the differences to be so suddenly resolved or to have the truth disclosed with such brutal directness, for it had never occurred to either of them to simply ask the one person who'd been there at the time. And now that the truth had been revealed, Bahzell had no idea what to do with it. It was almost worse than the bitter denials and denunciations his people and the Sothoii had hurled at one another for so many endless years, as if the proof that the Horse Stealers had been right all along was somehow almost immaterial. As if in some strange way the hatred and distrust between them and the Sothoii had been the only thing they truly shared, so that the destruction of its basis left them all bereft of rudder or compass.
But then, at last, Tellian stirred. He shook his head as if to clear it and looked at Bahzell once more.
"I don't-" He paused and cleared his throat. "It will take me some time to come to grips with what Wencit has just revealed to us, Milord Champion," he said finally. "And in many ways, I suppose which of us first offended the other matters far less than the history we have built between us since… and what we must build now." He smiled suddenly-a smile tart as alum, yet a smile nonetheless-and chuckled mirthlessly. "If I was prepared to believe that when I thought your ancestors had attacked mine without provocation, then I see no reason to change my mind now that I know it was my folk who were to blame. Yet I think those of my people who are not here today, who did not hear the truth from Wencit's own lips, will find it difficult to believe. Worse, some of them will refuse to believe, for to do so would require them to give up too much of the hatred in which they have invested their lives. And so, I fear, Wencit's history lesson, however accurate or well-taken, offers no simple solution to our dilemma."
"Aye, I'm thinking you've the right of it there," Bahzell rumbled. "But a solution we need, nonetheless."
"Agreed. Unfortunately, I see only one which my people could possibly accept."
"Ah?" Bahzell cocked his head. "And should I be taking it from your tone that you're thinking as how it's one my people couldn't be accepting?"
"That," Tellian admitted, "is indeed what I fear."
"Well, spit it out, man," Bahzell said impatiently when the baron paused once more.
"Very well, Milord Champion." Tellian drew a deep breath. "The only answer I can see is for us to end this right here, today, before it can escalate further. And the only way I can see to end it is with one side surrendering to the other. And since there are less than two hundred of you and over four thousand of us-"
He shrugged almost apologetically, and Bahzell heard Hurthang's teeth grind beside him. He himself said nothing for a full thirty seconds, and when he did speak again, it was in a very careful tone.
"Let me be certain as I've understood this, Milord. You're saying as how the only way we can be resolving this mess without a war is for us-the ones as were attacked without reason or declaration-to be surrendering to you, as were the ones doing the attacking?"
"Put that way, it certainly sounds… less than just," Tellian admitted. "Yet it's the only solution I can see. I have to end this somehow, either with a victory won by force of arms or with a formal settlement to which my own honor is pledged. If I don't, the Court factions which most hate and fear your people may well force King Markhos to order me to take still stronger action. But if you surrender to me, then I will be honor bound to protect you as the terms of your surrender provide, and not even Erthan of South Riding will want to push too hard in that case."
"So you'd ask the Order of Tomanak to surrender so as to be letting you 'protect' us, is it?" Bahzell rumbled in a dangerous voice. "Well let me be telling you this, Tellian of West Riding! The Order's no need of your 'protection,' and the one thing I've never learned at all, at all, is how to be yielding my sword to another! So if that's after being the only 'solution' you can see, you'd best be calling up your dogs and finding out how many of them can die with us!"
Tension crackled, and then, to the amazement of every man present, Hathan Shieldarm laughed. Not scornfully or bitterly, but with a deep, rolling belly laugh of pure amusement. All eyes swung to him, and he bent over his saddle bow, laughing still harder. It took several seconds for him to drag himself back under control, and when he did, he leaned forward and murmured something to his courser, then dismounted gracefully, despite the courser's height. He stood for a moment, raised left hand resting lovingly on the courser's shoulder, and then walked around to face Bahzell. He was a foot and more shorter than the hradani, and he craned his neck to look up at him.
"Well, Bahzell Bahnakson," he said, with a bubble of laughter still lurking in his voice, "if it's only a matter of your never having learned to do it, perhaps I can demonstrate how it's done!" His own companions watched him as if he'd run stark mad, but he only grinned and drew his sabre, then flipped it up to catch it by the blade and extend its hilt to Bahzell over his left forearm. "Milord Champion, I yield to you a sword which has never known dishonor, and with it myself, as your prisoner."
It was Bahzell's turn to stare, and then he heard Tellian roar with laughter as delighted as Hathan's own.
"Of course!" the baron exclaimed. "All I need is a formal agreement-it doesn't matter who surrenders to whom!" He drew his own sword and leaned low from the saddle with a sweeping bow. "Milord Champion, I yield, and my men with me!"
"Here now!" Bahzell looked back and forth between Hathan and Tellian with a flustered confusion the prospect of a battle to the death had been unable to evoke. "Here now!" he protested again, and Wencit joined the laughter.
"I don't see the problem, Bahzell," the wizard told him between guffaws. "As Tellian says, what matters is that someone surrenders. And think what a glorious triumph it will be for the Order! Less than eighty of you taking four thousand trained Sothoii warriors prisoner!"
"Now just you be waiting one Phrobus-damned minute!" Bahzell snapped. "I'll not have the Order- I mean, it's not fitting that- Fiendark seize you, Brandark, will you stop that laughing before I'm after breaking your worthless neck!"
No one seemed to pay him the least attention, and, finally, the glare faded from his eyes and he began to chuckle as well. He shook his head helplessly, then waved both hands at Hathan and Tellian.
"Oh, put up your swords, the both of you! If you're so all-fired eager to be surrendering yourselves, then I suppose the least I can be doing is grant you parole!"
"Thank you, Milord," Tellian said with becoming seriousness. "Upon what terms will you grant it?"
"Well, I suppose we should be thrashing that out, now shouldn't we just?" Bahzell agreed. "It's honored I'd be to invite you into my tent to discuss it, Milord Baron-if I was after having a tent, that is."
"It just happens that I have quite a nice one which the former Lord Warden of Glanharrow brought with him," Tellian replied. "If you and your companions would consent to join me there, I'm sure we can work out the terms of my army's surrender-and parole-to our mutual satisfaction."