"Ah! There you are, Vaijon!"
Vaijon paused halfway through his formal bow of greeting as Sir Charrow's tone registered. It confirmed his suspicion that the knight-captain had deliberately sent him out to be humiliated, and fresh anger flared within him. But he snuffed it sternly and rose, and the touch of color in his cheeks could easily have been put down to the cold wind outside the chapter house. He doubted Sir Charrow would be fooled into thinking any such thing, but the two of them could pretend.
"Yes, Knight-Captain," he made himself say formally. "Permit me to introduce Sir Bahzell, son of Bahnak-" his voice stumbled over the unfamiliar names, though not as much as on the next three words "-Champion of Tomanak ."
"I see." Sir Charrow rose from behind his desk and examined the two hradani. They stood just inside the door to his study, the taller of the two with his head bent to clear the ceiling of what was normally a comfortably large chamber, and the lips half-concealed by Charrow's snowy beard quirked in a smile. "Ah, Vaijon," he said delicately, "just exactly which of them is Sir Bahzell?"
Vaijon inhaled a jagged breath, yet once again the knight-captain had asked no more than a courteous question he should have answered without asking. Despite his undertow of fury at being rebuked, he knew he had drawn it upon himself… and the fact that he was actually failing even in the courtesy his parents had taught him long before he joined the Order, far less that expected of a knight-probationer, only proved he had, however hard it bit. Whatever Vaijon might think of the idea of a hradani champion, a gentleman owed it to himself to treat even the most basely born with courtesy.
"Forgive me," he said with a very creditable effort at a calm tone. "This," he gestured at the huge Horse Stealer, "is Sir Bahzell, Sir Charrow. And this-" He started to gesture at the second hradani, and his face went crimson as he realized he hadn't even asked the other's name. But Master Kresko had called him by name, hadn't he? Vaijon thought frantically for a seemingly interminable moment, hand frozen in midair, then-finally-completed the gesture.
"This is his companion, Lord… Brandark," he said, and made himself face the smaller hradani. "Your pardon, Milord, but I failed to ask your full name so that I might make you properly known. The fault was mine. Would you, of your courtesy, make yourself known to Sir Charrow?"
Brandark's eyebrows rose as Vaijon's exquisite, aristocratic accent rolled out the words. He hadn't really believed there were people who actually spoke the way bad bards wrote dialogue, and the devil in him longed to twit the youngster. But he also heard the gritted teeth in the young man's voice, and compassion won out. He didn't know if someone could die of mortification, but "Sir Vaijon" seemed to be headed in that direction, and Brandark didn't want his death on his conscience.
"Certainly, Sir Vaijon," he said instead, projecting all of his considerable suavity, and bowed to Sir Charrow. "My name is Brandark, Sir Charrow, Son of Brandark, of the Raven Talon Clan of the Bloody Sword hradani, until recently of Navahk."
"Oh, yes." Sir Charrow nodded. "The poet."
Brandark blinked, then smiled crookedly. "Say, rather, the would-be poet, Milord," he suggested. "I'll claim the title of 'scholar,' but more than that-" He shrugged, and Charrow nodded once more, in understanding.
"As you say, Lord Brandark, but know that you are welcome in this house as the companion and sword brother of Sir Bahzell. Accept hearth right and come under the protection of our shield."
Brandark bowed once again, much more deeply, at the ancient words of welcome he had never actually encountered outside a book, but Bahzell shook his head beside him.
"It's grateful I am for your welcome, Sir Charrow. Aye, and for your welcome of this worthless Bloody Sword, as well. But as I was after telling the young fellow here," he nodded sideways at Vaijon, "it's just plain Bahzell."
"I beg your pardon?"
"There's no 'sir' on the front," Bahzell explained with a hint of exasperation.
"But I-" Charrow broke off, looking for just an instant as confused (although far more poised about it) as Vaijon. Then he cleared his throat. "Excuse me," he said, "but the God did say you were properly Prince Bahzell, didn't he?" he asked carefully.
"Aye, I've no doubt himself would be doing just that," Bahzell replied, and this time resignation had replaced exasperation. "He's the sense of humor for it, now hasn't he just?"
"But… Are you saying you're not a prince?"
"Oh, well, as to that, I suppose I am," Bahzell said a bit uncomfortably. "That's to say, my father's after being Prince of Hurgrum, and I'm after being his son, so-" He shrugged. "Still and all, my folk are minded to see clan lordship as more important than 'princes,' and there's three brothers betwixt me and any crown, so there's small enough point in putting on airs."
"Perhaps not from your perspective, Milord," Charrow said with a hint of dryness. "Still, for those of us whose sires aren't princes of anything, it seems worth noting. But my point was that even if you've never been formally pledged to the Order, there are secular orders of chivalry. Surely, as a prince, you were knighted by your father, so-"
The master of the Belhadan Order broke off in astonishment as Bahzell began to chuckle. Sir Vaijon was inclined to bristle, but the Horse Stealer's expression made it obvious he was fighting hard not to laugh. Unfortunately, he was failing. Brandark at least managed to turn his laughter into a fit of coughing that looked almost natural, but Bahzell couldn't stop himself, and he pressed one hand to his ribs as his huge, chamber-shaking guffaws broke loose.
It took him only a few seconds to strangle his mirth once more, and he wiped tears from his eyes while he shook his head as penitently as the low ceiling allowed.
"I beg your pardon, Sir Charrow, and I'm hopeful you'll forgive me, for my father would be after fetching my skull a fearful rap for laughing so free. But it wasn't you as I was laughing at so much as the notion of him knighting anyone. It's not the sort of thing hradani are like to spend much time in doing, d'you see."
"You mean-?" Vaijon was stunned into the indiscretion. He tried to cut it off, but something else seemed to command his tongue as all eyes swung to him, and he heard his own voice blurt out the question. "You're not even a knight?"
It came out in a half-wail, like a child's protest that something an adult had just said couldn't possibly be true, and a blaze of scarlet swept over his face and burned down his throat. Yet he couldn't tear his eyes from the Horse Stealer, just as he simply could not wrap his mind around the thought of a champion of Tomanak who had never been knighted. Who wasn't even a knight-probationer like Vaijon himself!
"Unless my tongue's taken to saying other than I tell it to, that's the very thing I was just telling you," Bahzell said after a moment and, for the first time, Vaijon heard an ominous rumble in the deeps of his voice.
"Peace, Vaijon!" Sir Charrow spoke with a sharpness Vaijon had seldom heard from him, and the flicker of true anger in the older knight's brown eyes did more than anything else to shock Vaijon into silence.
"Forgive me, S- Prince Bahzell," he said, and bent his golden head in contrition.
"Let it be," Bahzell said after half a dozen aching heartbeats, and Charrow inhaled deeply.
"I thank you for your patience with us, Milord," he said gravely. "As I'm sure you must realize, we of the Order have no experience in how properly to address a hradani champion. And I fear that the God was… less than fully forthcoming when He advised me of your arrival, shall we say?"
"Oh, aye! Himself's a rare one for having his little joke," Bahzell agreed with a snort, ill humor banished. "And as for that, I'm thinking there must be a deal he wasn't after telling me either. Not least that there ever was an 'Order of Tomanak ' in the first place! I've no more notion what you do, or how, than a Purple Lord has of charity."
"He didn't tell you about the Order?" Even Charrow seemed taken aback by that, and Bahzell shrugged. The old knight gazed at him for several seconds, obviously considering what he'd just been told, then shook himself. "Well! I see we have a great deal to discuss, Milord. First, however, I think it would be well for Vaijon to escort you and Lord Brandark to your quarters and see you settled. After that, if you would be kind enough to join me in the library, I'll try to fill in the blanks He neglected to deal with."
An hour later, Vaijon, divested of his mail and dressed in the simple tunic and hose the brethren normally wore within the chapter house (although his were of the finest silk), guided Bahzell and Brandark into the library. After showing them to the quarters set aside for them, he'd used the intervening time to get his thoughts into some sort of order, and his expression was composed as he ushered them through the stone-walled passages. Internally, however, he remained imperfectly reconciled to the entire concept of a hradani champion. Especially-it pained him to admit it, yet it was true-of a backwoods, uneducated hradani champion whose Axeman came out sounding remarkably like that of the unlettered foresters who served on the Almerhas estates in backward Vonderland. He knew it shouldn't matter to him if it didn't matter to Tomanak , but it did. It truly did, and try as he might, he couldn't quite swallow his resentment that so high an honor should be wasted on such a person… or his disdain for the one on whom it had been squandered.
And then there was Bahzell's companion. Clearly, Brandark was better educated than Bahzell. Indeed, his Axeman could have been that of any well-educated citizen of the Empire of the Axe. It lacked the aristocratic finish with which Vaijon himself spoke, yet it was better than, say, Sir Charrow's. But for all that, Vaijon wasn't at all certain he ought to be leading Brandark along with Bahzell. Sir Charrow had said he had much to explain to Bahzell; it didn't automatically follow that he intended to explain the Order's business to an outsider.
Unfortunately, Bahzell clearly wanted Brandark along, and the smaller hradani equally obviously saw no reason why he shouldn't come. And so, yet again, Vaijon found himself doing something he was positive he ought not to do at the unspoken behest of the totally unsuitable creature Tomanak had seen fit to choose as His champion.
That thought carried him into the library, where Sir Charrow sat beside a crackling coal fire. Despite the large chamber's lofty dimensions, the hot air flowing from furnaces in the cellar through the vents of the hypocaust hidden under the stone floor and buried in the walls went far to drive off the chill. But the fire on the hearth was still welcome, particularly to Sir Charrow. The Belhadan master remained fit enough to hold his own in the field at need, yet there was no denying that he'd slowed with age, and he felt the cold more keenly than once he had.
Now he looked up from the tongs he held in one scarred, sinewy hand, and the fresh coal he'd positioned in the flames crackled wildly as he smiled at his guests.
"Thank you for coming, my lords," he said. "Please-be seated."
The library's walls were lined with high bookshelves, and a second-floor-level balcony ran around them to give access to still more shelf space. As a result, the ceiling was far higher than that of Sir Charrow's study, and it was obvious he'd used the intervening hour to make some preparations of his own. The chair to which he waved Brandark was no different from the one in which he himself sat, although the Bloody Sword filled a seat which made most humans look undersized just about to capacity. But no one in Belhadan had ever built a chair to Bahzell Bahnakson's stature, and so Charrow had ordered a cushioned, high-backed bench brought in to replace the chairs on the other side of the polished table by the library's diamond-paned windows. It was a little low for the Horse Stealer's long legs, but it had been built for several pages to sit abreast while awaiting the summons to duty, so at least it didn't squeeze in on him from the sides.
"We're pleased to be asked," Bahzell replied as he took his seat, "but if it's all the same to you, I'm thinking Brandark is as wishful as I that you'd be after leaving aside the 'sirs' and 'my lords.' "
"But I-" Charrow began, then stopped. "Very well, my friends. If that's truly how you prefer to be addressed, it's certainly not my place to argue with you. Besides-" he chuckled dryly "-traditionally, champions of Tomanak are noted for their… um, determination."
"You mean rock-headed, stiff-necked, bloody-minded obstinacy, don't you, Sir Charrow?" Brandark asked politely, and the white-haired knight-captain laughed.
"Of course not, Mi- Brandark. It would be most improper for me to say such things about a champion!"
"I see." Brandark's eyes laughed at Bahzell, and he tilted his ears impudently. "Fortunately, it's not at all 'improper' for me to describe him accurately."
"That's as may be, little man," Bahzell rumbled, "but just you be thinking about all the nasty accidents as might befall a man too busy working his mouth to watch where he's walking."
"Oh, I will. I will," Brandark promised with a laugh, then looked back to Charrow. "But I believe you'd invited us to join you so that you could explain the Order of Tomanak to this anointed lout of yours?"
Beside Charrow, Vaijon felt his hands close into fists behind him. He didn't care at all for the mocking levity with which these two addressed Sir Charrow, even if Sir Charrow did seem perfectly comfortable with it. And despite his own doubts about hradani champions-or perhaps because of them-hearing Brandark describe Bahzell as "this anointed lout" was infuriating. Yet no one but him seemed to care, and he forced himself to stand calmly erect beside the chapter master's chair.
"So I did." Charrow leaned forward to pour wine into wrought silver goblets and passed one to each hradani, then poured a third for himself and leaned back in his chair.
"If you will, Bahzell," he went on, sounding almost comfortable using the bare name without honorifics this time, "I thought it would be wise to give you a quick, brief description of the Order. I'm sure you'll have questions about the details, but I'd like to lay a broad foundation for them first. Does that sound acceptable to you?"
"Aye," Bahzell said. The single word came out just a bit shortly, as if he found the older man's continual deference an uncomfortable fit.
"Very well, then. Essentially, the Order was established shortly after the Fall-initially in the old Kingdom of the Axe, at Manhome, though we now have chapters in many lands-as the secular arm of the Church. There are, in fact, suggestions in our earliest records that the Order had existed in Kontovar for thousands of years before the Fall, but as with so many other institutions, the Church lost by far the greater part of its written history during the flight to Norfressa. We cannot be sure if the 'Brothers of the Sword' which historians tell us held the Anvil of Tomanak in Kontovar to the very end were, in fact, members of the Order which we still serve. We would like to believe that they were, but we have no proof."
He paused for a moment to sip wine and gaze into the flames seething on the hearth, then shrugged.
"Be that as it may, the organization-or reorganization-of the Order in Norfressa took many years. There was enormous confusion in those early days, of course, with refugees flooding in from Kontovar and Duke Kormak trying frantically to find places just to put them all."
"Aye, so I've been told," Bahzell rumbled, and his deep voice was dark, almost cold. Charrow looked up quickly, and the hradani shrugged his shoulders impatiently. "Ah, don't be fretting yourself," he said. "It's just that hradani have little enough use for your Duke Kormak. I've no doubt at all, at all, that he was a good man, after doing the best he could, but never a single thing did he do for our folk. Saving, of course, to order our throats slit if we were after washing up on his coast."
"Bahzell, I-" Charrow began in a troubled tone, but the hradani waved a hand.
"Don't fret yourself, I said, and meant it," he said in a more normal voice. "What happened twelve hundred years and more ago bears small enough weight today. Aye, and truth to tell, I was no more there then than you or Kormak's heirs. Let the past be burying the past."
"I- All right." Charrow paused a moment longer, then resumed. "At any rate, it took us quite some time to get organized, and, as I say, the Manhome chapter, as the first founded, is the Mother Chapter even today, although our administrative headquarters were transferred to Axe Hallow when the royal and imperial capital moved there. We're not the largest chivalric order in the Empire, but we are the oldest, and, unlike most of the others, our membership is open to anyone who hears the God's voice and proves worthy to serve Him. Which, as a rule-" he darted a sudden, eagle-eyed glance at the Horse Stealer "-includes His champions."
"Ah?" Bahzell asked mildly.
"Ah, indeed," Charrow replied in dust-dry tones. "There have been a handful of exceptions, over the centuries, but for the most part, the God chooses His champions from within the Order. Nothing requires Him to restrict His choices to our membership, of course. He's a god, and we serve Him. We certainly don't sit around telling Him what to do! Nonetheless, we're always taken a little aback on those rare occasions when He selects someone from outside the Order. Like you."
"Why is it I'm thinking himself was after going just a mite further 'outside the Order' than usual when he decided to go pestering me into signing on?" Bahzell murmured.
Pestered? Vaijon thought indignantly. Did he just say the God pestered him into accepting the greatest honor a man could possibly receive?!
"Ah, yes, I suppose you could put it that way," Charrow agreed through pursed lips. "Which creates something of a problem, I'm afraid. Some of our members-" the chapter master's eyes might have flitted sideways at Vaijon, but Bahzell couldn't have sworn to it "-are going to find the idea of a hradani champion just a trifle difficult to deal with."
"I'm not wishful to be upsetting anyone," Bahzell said seriously. "Mind, I'm not after apologizing for who or what I am, either, but I've no mind to be putting myself forward or sticking my spoon into someone else's stew. If there's those as wish me elsewhere, well, I've been wished elsewhere before, and will be again, no doubt."
"No," Charrow said so flatly the hradani blinked. "It doesn't work that way," the human went on in firm tones. "Champions are rare, Bahzell. You may not realize just how rare, but according to the Order's rolls, there are currently, not counting you, only seventeen living champions in all of Norfressa. Only seventeen-eighteen with you-and the entire purpose of the Order is to support your work in the world."
"My work?" Bahzell stared at him, ears flat in astonishment, and the old knight nodded.
"Precisely. Oh, I have no idea at all what your particular task is. That's between you and Tomanak , and the qualities which make it something between you and Him are the same ones which made you a champion in the first place. You and those like you truly are Tomanak's Swords. It is your task to lead, and ours to follow you. Not blindly, but as we would follow any captain set in command of us by our liege lord." The human's voice rang with iron pride-not arrogance, but the fierce determination of the warrior he was. "We are not forged of the same steel as His champions, but it is we of the Order who hold the frontiers they conquer, Bahzell Bahnakson. As He commands you, so you may command us-any of us-for we were created as your shield arm, and however high you may fly in His service, wherever you may go under His command, there we will be also."
"Here now!" Bahzell tried to bring the protest out quickly, lightly, but the old man's sincerity hushed his voice. "Himself was never after saying all that! I've no mind to command any man to follow me-no, nor to fight my battles for me, either!"
"Of course you don't. If you did, you wouldn't be a champion. But that doesn't mean you can escape it, either. Oh, you can try to run from us. Others have, on occasion, but the Order has a way of finding His champions sooner or later. Yet I don't think you're the type who would run," Charrow added thoughtfully. "Not once you've thought it over. You're not so proud or arrogant-or cowardly-as to turn your back on the aid you may need to do whatever it is He's called you to do."
Bahzell winced, but he shook his head, as well. "That's as may be, Sir Charrow, but I'll not go seeking it, either! I told himself I'll do what I do because I choose to do it-because it's the right as I see the right. I'll not 'command' anyone to follow where it may be naught but my own stiff-necked pride leads!"
"Which is probably the reason He picked you in the first place," Charrow said serenely. He met Bahzell's fierce gaze for several unflinching seconds, then smiled and poured more wine into the goblets.
"Well, that's the bare essentials of the Order-and how it relates to you," he said more lightly. "As for the details, our commander is Sir Terrian, Knight-General of the Order, and we currently count a total of ninety-six chapter houses. Each chapter house consists of at least five knights-companion and their squires and from three to five knights-probationer, which is the minimum strength allowed under our charter. Most are larger, of course, like our chapter here in Belhadan. We have myself, as knight-captain, four knights-commander, and thirty-one knights-companion, all with their squires, plus twelve knights-probationer and two hundred lay-brothers as our men-at-arms. In addition, another ten knights-companion and fifty lay-brothers are headquartered here but assigned to roving duty across the border in Vonderland, where things tend to be somewhat less, um, orderly than here in Fradonia. Our chapter is somewhat larger than others because of Belhadan's importance to the King Emperor, and-"
Bahzell Bahnakson sat back on the bench, holding his wine and listening to Sir Charrow describe the size and organization of the Order, and a sense of rebellion bubbled within him, leavened by a feeling of futility. Charrow's attitude made it plain that the choice to have nothing to do with the Order had been taken out of his hands the moment he agreed to serve Tomanak as his champion. It was too late for him to evade the authority Charrow was determined to cede him, but even as he listened to the chapter master's voice, he felt Vaijon of Almerhas' eyes and knew not all of the Order's brethren would accept his presence as calmly as the Belhadan chapter's master seemed to have done.