"Are you sure about this, Bahzell?" Vaijon asked quietly.
The two of them stood outside the tent in which Bahzell and Tellian had haggled out the details of the Sothoii's "parole" while what had been Sir Mathian's army struck camp about them. The men of that army were in a strange mood, one whose like Bahzell had never seen before. The most common emotion seemed to be sheer, unadulterated shock-the stunned disbelief of men whose world has just been turned upside down. Very few of them knew what Wencit had revealed about the early history of the hradani-Sothoii wars, but they did know their liege lord had just surrendered all of them to an enemy they outnumbered by fifty to one. And that they were about to struggle homeward up the Gullet, apparently in total defeat, from a foe who could face them with less than seventy swords.
But there was more to it than shock. There was hatred in all too many of the eyes which flicked constantly over Bahzell or darted to where Hurthang and Brandark stood talking quietly with Kaeritha and Wencit. Too many centuries of mutual slaughter lay between their people and Bahzell's for it to be any other way, and for many of them, the shame of their own "defeat" only made the hate burn hotter. Rancor and consternation held one another in uneasy balance at the moment, yet their hate also emphasized what Tellian had said earlier. Too many of the Sothoii feared what the united Horse Stealers and Bloody Swords might represent, and the fragile edifice the Baron of West Riding had patched together with Bahzell could still crumble into renewed and bitter warfare all too easily.
"Aye, I'm sure," he said after a moment, then grinned. "Or as nigh to it as any man could be!"
"Well, I'm not," Vaijon told him frankly. He looked away from Bahzell to glare at a Sothoii armsman who'd let too much hate show in his expression as he looked at the hradani. The armsman felt Vaijon's eyes and glanced in his direction, then turned quickly away, and Vaijon snorted. "You're going to wake up one night soon with a knife in your back if you go with these people," he warned Bahzell, "and I don't like the way they look at the rest of our lads, either!"
" 'Our lads,' is it now?" Bahzell teased gently. He clapped Vaijon on the shoulder, and the human looked up at him with a sudden flash of laughter as he realized what he'd just said. But then the humor faded.
"Yes, our lads, and not just because they belong to the Order, Bahzell. They're good men, all of them. Some of the finest I've ever met, and I'm proud that they think of me as being one of theirs."
"Aye, well, I'll not argue there," Bahzell said softly, and squeezed his friend's-no, his brother's-shoulder gently.
"But we're wandering away from the point," Vaijon told him.
"Which is," Vaijon said with a glare, "that you can't just go wandering off with this Tellian all by yourself! And before you say anything else, think about your father and mother. How d'you think they're going to react-or, worse, Marglyth!-when I come home and just casually announce that you've gone home to Balthar with your people's worst enemies?"
"Why, as to that, I'm thinking they'll be carrying on for a bit about idiots and fools and children as never look before they leap. And then Father will be having a bit to say about boulders and skulls, and I've no doubt at all that Marglyth will help him say it. But after that they'll both be stepping back and drawing a deep breath, and when they're after doing that, Vaijon, why, they'll realize as this may be the best thing that's ever happened yet betwixt us and Tellian's folk."
"Do you really expect me to believe that's going to happen?" Vaijon said skeptically, and Bahzell laughed.
"You just be watching my da, now, Vaijon of Almerhas! He's one as has more wit than hair, when all's said, and he'll see I'm after being right." Vaijon still looked unconvinced, and Bahzell sighed. "Look you, Vaijon. For twelve centuries, Sothoii and Horse Stealer have been slaughtering one another over this or that, and not a step closer to ending it have we ever come. Well, it's in my mind-aye, and in Tellian's, too, I'm thinking-as how we've a chance to change that at last."
"You don't think anyone else is going to take the surrender of four thousand men to less than seventy seriously, do you?" Vaijon demanded.
"No," Bahzell said. "But if Tellian and I are treating it seriously, why there's no one at all, at all, can object without he's offered insult to Tellian's honor, on the one hand, or to the Order's, on the other. And that, Sword Brother, is why I've no choice but to be going with him, for if he and I aren't after acting like we mean it, then we've no pretext to be holding the others in check."
"No," Bahzell said again, gently. "Think it out, Vaijon. Think it out, and you'll see as I'm right. And the fact that I'm champion of Tomanak , and Horse Stealer, and son to the Horse Stealer as is probably collecting Churnazh's ears just about now, is the one thing as might just be making this work. Who better to speak for my folk among the Sothoii than a champion? And what Sothoii is like to be challenging the Sword Oath of a champion? But I'm after being my father's son, as well, and that's after making me a right fair choice as ambassador and envoy, as well. And don't you be forgetting that hradani and Sothoii both understand the giving of hostages in peace settlements, Vaijon! No, lad. With me in Balthar as Tellian's 'guest' to see to enforcing the terms of his 'parole,' we've a chance at last to be ending the constant fighting betwixt us, and himself wouldn't be so happy at all, at all, if one of his champions was turning his back on such as that, now would he?"
"I suppose not," Vaijon sighed. "But I hate thinking of you all alone among them."
"Hisht now! And who said I'd be after being alone amongst 'em?"
"What? But I thought-?"
"Well, that fool Bloody Sword yonder says as how he's always wanted to see a Sothoii city and spend some time comparing notes with their bards. And Kerry's been after reminding me as how her original business out here was with the Sothoii, anyway. So the two of them will be coming with me, and I've no doubt Father and Mother will be sending a few lads up the Escarpment to be giving me a bit of a guard to call my own."
"Really? Well, that's better than I thought. At least-" Vaijon broke off suddenly and frowned. "Wait. Wait just one minute! You said Kerry is going with you, too?" Bahzell nodded, a slight twinkle dancing in his eyes, and Vaijon's frown deepened. "I don't think that's a good idea, Bahzell. I mean, there's the chapter still to be organized, and if some of your Horse Stealers have had trouble accepting Bloody Swords now, think how much worse it will be when Bloody Swords who actually fought on the other side in the current war try to join us! You could probably talk them into it-or knock their heads together hard enough if talking doesn't work. And Kerry probably could, too. But without either of you-"
"Without either of us, they'll still be having one champion to be knocking heads together at need," Bahzell told him. "And," he added judiciously, "you'll probably be finding yourself doing that quite a bit, the first year or so."
"What?" It didn't seem to have registered for just a moment, and then Vaijon's eyes flew wide. "What? You expect me- You think I-!" He stared at Bahzell in disbelief edged with terror. "Bahzell, you can't be serious!"
"And why can't I just?"
"Because- Because I'm too young! And because… because-"
"Hisht, now!" Bahzell said again, and this time there was an edge of sternness under the amusement in his voice. Vaijon slithered to a stop, and Bahzell looked down at him with eyes which were deadly serious.
"Vaijon of Almerhas," he said sternly, "you were after being a right pain in the arse when first you set eyes on me, but you've come along nicely since. Mind, you've a few flaws yet, but then I suppose even I'm after having a few of those. And, aye, you're young. And human. But you're also a champion of Tomanak , and one who's earned the respect of all our lads, as well. And a champion of Tomanak , my lad, is one as does whatever it's needful to be doing. So it's back to Hurgrum you'll go, you and Hurthang and Gharnal, and it's the three of you, not me, as will be building the Order amongst my folk. For I've no doubt at all, at all, that it was for that very task himself was after sending you all this way with me."
"Indeed it was," a deep voice rumbled in the backs of both their brains, "and I'm pleased you finally figured it out. Surprised, mind you, for I'd almost given up hope you would, but pleased."
Vaijon had opened his mouth in fresh protest. Now it closed with a snap. He and Bahzell stood motionless for several seconds, waiting for that silent voice to speak again, but it seemed to have said all it had to say, and Bahzell smiled crookedly.
"Well, lad? Are you ready to be arguing with him? For if you are, I can tell you of my own experience that you'll be after losing in the end."
"Ah, no," Vaijon said finally, and drew a deep breath. "No," he said judiciously, "I don't believe I will argue with Him. But you owe me for this, Bahzell Bahnakson. You owe me quite a debt, and one of these days, I intend to collect it."
"Oh, and how would you be figuring as how I'm owing you a debt?"
"I'm astonished you can even ask that!" Vaijon said, and raised his hands, counting off points on his fingers as he made them. "First, you turn up in Belhadan and let me make a fool out of myself in front of an entire waterfront full of idlers. Then you let me drag you home to Sir Charrow and make an absolute ass out of myself in front of him and the entire chapter. Then you break both my arms, haul me off across half of Norfressa in ice and snow, fling me into the midst of a batch of barbarian hradani-the shortest of whom is taller than I am, I might add-hurl me into an attack on a temple of Sharna where I wind up fighting demons and get my arm broken all over again, and now this! Oh, no, Bahzell! Trust me, you'll be years paying off all you owe me!"
"Oh no I won't," Bahzell told him, slapping him on his back with a laugh, and jerked the thumb of his other hand to where Brandark, Hurthang, and Kaeritha were walking towards them. "Oh, I've no doubt you might be feeling just a mite miffed over all those other complaints, Vaijon, but there's one favor I'm about to be doing for you as you'll be thanking me for for the the rest of your days."
"Oh? And what would that be?"
"Why, I'm after taking Brandark with me," Bahzell said wickedly, "and just you be thinking what that means!"
"You mean-?" Vaijon glanced at the Bloody Sword and began to grin himself.
"Exactly. I've no doubt at all, at all, that you'll be finding your own set of problems, but just you remember when you do that you'll not be hearing some cursed song about "Vaijon the Fair" or "Vaijon the Noble" or some such foolishness. And that, my lad, puts paid to any debt I might be owing you!"