Well, you seem to have settled in comfortably enough," Brandark observed as he tipped his chair far back on its rear legs. The heels of his brand new boots rested easily on the table Bahzell had moved in front of the fire in his assigned quarters, and his hands lovingly oiled the wood of the balalaika in his lap. Sir Charrow-or, to be more accurate, Mistress Quarelle, the chapter house's chatelaine-had wanted to put the visiting champion in a considerably larger set of chambers, but Bahzell had put his foot down at that. After the past several months spent mainly in the field, this much smaller suite offered him all the space and comfort he wanted, and he continued to feel awkward about his status with the Order.
"Well as to a roof to keep the snow off, aye, I'm after being comfortable enough," he rumbled now, looking up from the whetstone he had been carefully applying to his dagger. The sword lying on the table no longer required honing. He still found that unnatural, and though he continued to check it religiously-he winced at his own choice of words-it was almost comforting to turn his attention to more normal steel.
"But not with your new brothers, eh?" The question could have come out with Brandark's normal astringency, but instead it was asked almost gently, and Bahzell's expression turned grim as his ears flattened in agreement.
"Aye. Though truth to tell, it's less that I'm feeling awkward with them-though there's something to that, for a fact-as that they're still after trying to decide what himself was after thinking. That pompous nit Vaijon's not one to make it any easier, but he's scarcely the only one who's wondering. It's in my mind that Yorhus and Adiskael are at least as ill-pleased as he is, and with less cause. Worse, they're older than him, and senior to boot. If they're minded to send whispers marching back and forth to set folk against me-and I'm thinking they are-then like as not they'll do more damage in the end. And just for now, Vaijon's after making himself so spectacular a fool that not even Sir Charrow's noticed what the pair of 'em are about."
"Um." Brandark flexed his legs, rocking his chair back and forth precariously, and frowned into the flames on the hearth, hands resting motionless on the balalaika while he considered. Bahzell was certainly right about how obvious Vaijon had made his own angry resentment, but the Bloody Sword hadn't paid Sir Yorhus or Sir Adiskael much heed. Now he berated himself for his lack of attention. Yorhus and Adiskael were both knights-commander, ranked fourth and fifth in the Belhadan chapter, respectively, and soft words from them could do more damage than the most impassioned tirade from an arrogant young hothead. And while Brandark might not have noticed anything of the sort from them, he knew Bahzell too well to believe the Horse Stealer was inventing enemies. That had never been his way, even in Navahk.
The Bloody Sword's ears cocked thoughtfully. Perhaps it wasn't all that surprising he hadn't noticed Yorhus or Adiskael. He was even more an outsider than Bahzell, and though he'd begun to find a place of sorts for himself among the bards and minstrels who entertained in Belhadan's taverns-and with the Royal and Imperial University scholars to whom Master Kresco had introduced him-the Order's members were unlikely to confide in him when they hadn't even made up their minds about Bahzell!
And in fairness to the Order, Brandark had to admit that Bahzell might have been more than a bit hard for them to accept even if his race weren't hated and reviled. There were innumerable things Brandark had yet to figure out about Bahzell's relationship with Tomanak -which, he reflected wryly, also seemed to be true for Bahzell-but he could certainly see why the Horse Stealer might disturb the Order's more orthodox members.
Most importantly, he supposed, was the way Bahzell spoke about Tomanak . There was never anything disrespectful in his tone or manner-not by hradani standards, at any rate-but Brandark doubted the rest of the Order saw it that way. Sir Charrow clearly did, but it was hard for any of the other Races of Man to understand the hradani's ways, and especially those of the Horse Stealers. Like his own Bloody Swords, Horse Stealers were capable of exquisite courtesy, but (even more than among his Bloody Swords) having one of them be polite to one was usually a sign of serious trouble. As a rule, formality on their part was a sign of distrust, and they were most polite of all to people they detested. Personally, Brandark suspected that politeness was yet another defense against the Rage, a way of using courtesy to defuse tension and keep swords sheathed.
On the other hand, the Horse Stealers were inclined to be a bit more… informal under normal circumstances than even other hradani. Brandark had never been to Hurgrum, but he'd heard reports of Prince Bahnak's "court," and he shuddered at the very thought of how someone like Vaijon would have reacted to it. Not because of any "barbarian squalor" or crudity, but because any of Bahnak's people had the right, by custom and law, to appear personally before him to present petitions directly. And, as Bahzell had told Sir Charrow, Bahnak's position as lord of Clan Iron Axe was more important to his own people than any princely title. By a tradition stretching back to the days when only the clan's swords stood between its people and extinction, a clan chief was the true source of its cohesion, the embodiment of its joint survival. Nothing and no one could be more important to Bahnak's folk, and he had proven himself one of the greatest chieftains in the Iron Axes' history. Which meant, of course, that his people addressed him as they would their clan chief, with an earthy succinctness utterly at odds with Vaijon's notions of proper courtesy.
And that was precisely how Bahzell spoke of Tomanak -with the devotion, loyalty, and familiarity of a Horse Stealer for his clan lord. In its own way, that was a supreme compliment, the highest honor Bahzell could bestow, yet too many of these citified, over-civilized knights seemed unable to grasp that fact.
"Well enough for you to be sitting there saying 'um' while you're after toasting your arse in front of my fire," Bahzell said moodily, breaking into the Bloody Sword's thoughts. "It's not you as has to deal with them directly!"
"Not directly, no," Brandark agreed, "but your relationship with them rubs off on me, you know, Longshanks. I get the bad with the good-second-hand, as it were." He waved a hand as Bahzell darted a dangerous look at him. "Oh, don't worry! They're too civilized for their own good, and they'd never dream of offering me even the tiniest insult. But they do tend to look at us a bit askance, don't they?"
"A bit and then some," Bahzell growled, looking back down at his dagger and testing its edge on his calloused thumb. "But that's not to say as how they've done aught but see to our needs with rare speed," he admitted.
"That's true enough," Brandark agreed, for it was.
The hradani had been in Belhadan for a mere twelve days, but anyone looking at them now would have found it difficult to envision the ragged state in which they had arrived. In Brandark's case, that was due in no small part to the line of credit Duke Jash^an had set up for them. The Bloody Sword had confined his buying spree primarily to the funds he and Bahzell had brought with them, but the Duke's credit had allowed him to indulge himself without worrying about what happened when his cash ran out. He'd not only replaced his lost and ruined equipment but commissioned new garments from one of Belhadan's foremost tailors, and his elegant shirt was made of the finest silk while the embroidered doublet which covered it would have done credit even to Sir Vaijon's relatives. In fact, the only place he'd spent more money was in Belhadan's bookstores. He had no idea how he was going to get his mountain of books home, but that was the least of his worries. Printing presses and movable type were two more things the Axemen had and hradani did not. Of course, there were very few hradani books-printed or hand-copied-of any kind. Most of the foreign volumes he'd managed to acquire had been printed, but he'd been able to assemble his library back home in Navahk only in bits and pieces, and almost all of his books had been damaged, many badly, before they ever fell into his hands. Here in Belhadan, though, he felt like a miser loosed in someone else's gold mine, and he intended to pry up every nugget he could lay hands on.
Bahzell, on the other hand, had never been much of a reader, and he continued his utter indifference to fashion. He had allowed the Order to replace his ruined clothing, but he'd refused anything remotely like Brandark's finery. His breeches were warm and serviceable, but they were cut for comfort, not style. His full-sleeved shirt was made of first-quality linen, but without a trace of embroidery, and the warm tunic he wore over it was of the same plain green wool as the Order's field-issue surcoats, as was the quilted Sothoii-style poncho he'd insisted upon instead of a cloak. Most of the lay-brothers who served the Order as men-at-arms were better dressed than he, and he must certainly be the drabbest "knight" ever to grace these halls.
Except, of course, that he wasn't a knight.
"You know," Brandark said slowly, adjusting a tuning peg with exquisite care rather than looking at his friend, "it might put these people a bit more at ease with you if you'd let them knight you. Sir Charrow, at least, is just aching for the opportunity, and I don't see how Tomanak could object. They are his Order, after all."
"Ha!" Bahzell snorted, and sheathed the dagger with a sharp click! as if for emphasis. "Wouldn't that just look wonderful, now. Me, decked out like some cursed knight from one of your fool tales! Oh, no, my lad!"
"But if it would make them happy-"
"No, I said, and no, I meant," Bahzell said flatly. "Himself was after telling me he needed a champion. He said naught at all about knights and lords and titles, and I've no mind to be taking such on, either. And-" his brown eyes hardened ominously "-if these folk can't be accepting what's good enough for himself, then I've no mind to be catering to their prejudices, either!"
"I hadn't thought about it in that light," Brandark admitted. He pursed his lips and half-flattened his ears, then plucked a string, listening critically to his instrument's voice. "So if you're not going to let them knight you, what are you going to do?"
"Now there you've got me." Bahzell sighed. He rose and clipped the dagger sheath to his belt, stretching in a huge yawn despite the limitations of the chamber's ceiling, then crossed to the rack on which he'd hung the armor Sir Charrow had insisted the Order was duty bound to provide him. A kite-shaped shield, dark green and bearing the emblems of Tomanak in gold, hung on the wall behind it, beside his arbalest, and Bahzell smiled faintly as he reached out to brush his fingertips almost reverently across the mail. It was by far the finest he'd ever owned, dwarvish chain with a steel breast-and-back, though he felt certain Sir Vaijon would turn up his nose at it. The mail was of honest steel rings, with no silver wash or fancywork, and the burnished breastplate was equally plain, without even the green enamel most members of the Order preferred. But Bahzell knew the quality of that armor's workmanship, and Bahzell Bahnakson had little use for flash and glitter.
Yet happy as he was to see it and to once again have boots which not only fitted but kept out snow and wet, the price seemed high. It was obvious Vaijon could scarcely force himself to be civil even now. In fact, the young man's unhappiness seemed to be growing still worse, as if some poison festered deep inside him. Yet Bahzell almost preferred Vaijon to the reservations and resentments behind the exquisitely courteous facades of all too many of his new "brothers." He'd identified Yorhus and Adiskael, but he suspected there were others, as well. Others who were far harder to identify because they were older and more restrained. More… cautious than Vaijon's desperate youthful ardor permitted the golden-haired knight-probationer to be. Yet they were there. He often wondered whether or not Vaijon realized that, but he doubted it, somehow. Young Vaijon was too wrapped up in his own unhappiness and disappointment to realize that he was serving-perhaps even being made to serve-as the focus of the unstated resentment of so many of his seniors, as well.
"I've thought on it, this last week and more," he went on to Brandark after several thoughtful seconds, while his fingers unconsciously caressed the high-combed helmet with the special openings for a hradani's ears. "To speak truth, I've been more than half minded to take myself off. Old Kilthan's factor could find work enough for the two of us, or Master Kresco's one as would be after putting us up at need, and I've had a bellyful of sideways looks. Mind you, I've naught at all against Sir Charrow, and most of the rest've tried at least, but there's no skirting 'round it, Brandark. But for Sir Charrow and two or three others, most of 'em are ready enough to be seeing my backside."
He paused, staring moodily into the fire once more, then sighed heavily.
"Just betwixt the pair of us, I'd as soon show it to 'em, too," he admitted, "and maybe the sooner the better." Brandark glanced up quickly at his words' bitter undertone, and Bahzell looked back at him with an expression not even the most charitable could have called a smile. His hand caressed the hilt of his dagger, and a dangerous glitter, like chips of cruel ice, flickered in his usually mild eyes. Perhaps only another hradani would have understood that glitter, but Brandark was a hradani, and he drew a deep breath before he spoke very carefully.
"Was there a specific person who brought you to that conclusion?" he asked.
"Aye," Bahzell said grimly, and knuckles whitened as his hand clenched on the dagger.
The ice in his eyes burned suddenly hot with remembered passion, and his nostrils flared as a razor-edged echo of his people's curse shivered at his core. He and Brandark had learned more about the Rage than any other hradani had ever suspected there was to learn. They had mastered the trick of summoning it at need-of using it in their times of darkest peril-but that hadn't lulled them into forgetting its dangers, for having accepted that it could be used, the temptation to use it might well become even greater. It wasn't something they discussed, but there were times when both of them feared that their new knowledge might actually weaken the chains with which they held their demon pent. And as Brandark gazed at his friend, he suddenly wondered how much of Bahzell's apparent calm was no more than a mask for something else. There were dark and dangerous places in any hradani's soul, even that of a champion of Tomanak , and it was chillingly obvious that someone, at least, had come perilously close to pushing his way into one of them.
But then Bahzell closed his eyes, shook himself, and exhaled noisily. When he looked back at Brandark once more the sick, hungry fury of the Rage had been banished from his eyes, and he took his hand from his dagger. Brandark said nothing, but the Horse Stealer needed no words to read the thoughts behind his eyes, and he chuckled harshly.
"Aye, it was after being 'specific,' right enough," he agreed, "and the fool not even guessing how close he'd come to seeing his guts spilled on the floor before him, either!" He bared his strong, white teeth. "It was near as near, Brandark-that close-" he raised his hand, holding index finger and thumb a bare quarter-inch apart "and but for himself, I'm thinking I'd've-"
He stopped himself and shook his head.
"No, let's be honest amongst ourselves. But for himself I'd not've stopped myself. I'd've killed the sanctimonious, smiling bastard and laughed… and wouldn't that have been proving as how they'd all been right to think us savages?"
"Don't blame yourself too much," Brandark said quietly, his voice for once devoid of humor. "The Rage can take even the best of us, Bahzell. You know that as well as I."
"Aye, aye." Bahzell turned his eyes back to the hearth and shrugged, but his voice was low. "Yet I'd hoped when himself told us how it was changing I'd not have to be facing it again-not in the old way. Yet there it was, like red murder in my soul, and the hunger of it. The need just to be reaching out and taking him by the neck and-"
He shuddered again, then stood completely motionless for almost a minute. Then he tossed his head and turned to his friend once more, and this time his smile was almost natural.
"Still and all, himself was never after promising us it would be easy, was he now? And I'm thinking he was also after warning us the old Rage lingers yet, so like as not it was naught but foolish pride made me think as how it might not be waiting for me these days, hey? And while I'd sooner not come any closer to it than I've done already, it's in my mind that himself is after thinking up something for me to be doing here, which means I can't be off before I've done it… whatever it is. On the other hand, cursed if I know what it is. And himself's not after making so very free with his little 'visits,' either," he added wryly, then chuckled. "Now there's a thing I'd not thought myself likely to be missing!"
"I feel sure he'll get back around to confiding in you," Brandark said dryly, as relieved as his friend by the change of topic.
"Oh, like enough," Bahzell agreed, turning back to the table and seating himself once more. "The problem is I'm not so very comfortable in my mind about waiting for the boot to fall, you see. I've the notion that when it does, there's someone as won't like it overmuch, and experience has a nasty way of suggesting the someone's me, like enough."
"Good!" Brandark said, and grinned as his friend looked up quickly. "I'm working on another verse for The Lay of Bahzell Bloody-Hand," the Bloody Sword explained, "and the interesting things that happen to you always provide plenty of inspiration."
"Now just you be holding up there! I thought you'd given over on that curst song!"
"Oh, I meant to, Bahzell. I truly meant to. But then we got here and I saw how your own brethren in the Order have failed to appreciate your towering nobility. Surely you see that it's my duty to repair that dreadful injustice." Brandark struck a rousing chord on his balalaika, grinning devilishly, and Bahzell glowered at him.
"What I'm seeing," the Horse Stealer said grimly, "is that I've waited overlong in wringing your scrawny neck! Not," he added, "but what that can't be seen to easy enough still some dark night."
"Why, Bahzell! What would Sir Charrow think if he could hear you now?" Brandark demanded with a gurgle of laughter.
"He'll cheer me on, like as not, if you've been after spreading that song of yours about," Bahzell shot back, then stabbed the Bloody Sword with suddenly suspicious eyes. "You have been spreading it about, haven't you?" he demanded.
"Well, it has proved quite popular down at the Seaman's Rest," Brandark admitted. "And at the Anchor and Trident. And, now that I think of it, I do believe they asked for an encore at the Flying Lady night before last, and Estervald-he's the resident harpist at the Jeweled Horse-wants to know when the new verse will be finished."
"I have waited overlong." Bahzell groaned, and Brandark laughed again. However dreadful his singing voice or the doggerel his efforts at verse normally produced, even his worst enemies-perhaps especially his enemies-would admit he had a gift for satire, and The Lay of Bahzell Bloody-Hand was his personal gift to his towering friend. Unfortunately, from Bahzell's viewpoint, he'd chosen to set it to the melody of a much beloved and depressingly easy to remember drinking song.
"I don't really see your problem, Bahzell," he said now, his tone insufferably prim. "It's not as if the song insults you in any way!"
"No, and if one tenth of what it claims was after being true, I'd be the biggest ninny on the face of Norfressa!"
"Why, Bahzell! How can you say that? I'll have you know that no one could possibly doubt that you're a very perfect paladin after hearing my song! Your nobility of character, your selfless determination to rescue maidens, your fearless resolve when facing demons or devils, your-"
"One more word-one more!-and I'll crack your skull this minute!" Bahzell told him, and Brandark shut his mouth with a grin.
Sir Vaijon of Almerhas stalked into the chapter house in a black, bleak fury so deep that the door warden physically flinched away from him. In his defense, Vaijon had no idea his rage showed, which was, of course, yet another sign of its seething power. But he knew it was there, and the reasonable part of his mind told him he should take it to Sir Charrow, or perhaps to Sir Ferrik, the chapter's senior priest.
Only he couldn't. He'd done that too often in the last two weeks, and each time, they'd looked at him with that same reproach. Neither had berated him, yet it was obvious both felt the problem was his. That some failing within him created the terrible pressure boiling in his heart and mind whenever he faced the intolerable thought of a hradani champion.
Vaijon had tried. He'd truly tried, spending endless hours watching beside his armor and sword when he should have been asleep, begging the God to help him deal with this insult to the Order. To help him accept the inclusion of a hradani among His brightest blades. He knew other members of the Order were humbly born. Sir Charrow's father had been a brick mason, for Tomanak's sake! But a hradani? An uncouth barbarian who spoke like a barbarian? Who refused even to allow the Order to knight him in order to regain at least some of the respect it was bound to lose when it became known he was one of its champions? A barbarian who didn't even appear to realize the tremendous honor Sir Charrow had offered to bestow upon him and spoke of the God Himself with such casual disrespect?
And now this! Vaijon's face flushed afresh, and his teeth grated audibly as the song replayed itself in his mind. He hadn't meant to visit the tavern. Such places were for the low born-for seamen and tradesmen and the like-but he and Sir Yorhus had been returning from an errand to Captain Hardian, who commanded the cruisers the Order maintained here in Belhadan, when he'd heard the name "Bahzell Bloody-Hand" in the snatch of song floating out the briefly opened doors and known he had no choice. He and Sir Yorhus had stepped into the establishment, wrapping themselves in their cloaks and hoping no one would note the Order's arms on their surcoats, and stood in the back to listen-first with astonishment, then with incredulity, and finally with horror and outrage.
It mocked the Order! It mocked everything the Order stood for, and all in the name of that uncivilized dolt. Saving serving girls from the "foul attentions" of "ill-favored overlords," indeed! And that business about rescuing noblewomen disguised as peasants-as if things like that truly happened! And fighting demons and evil princes with cursed swords, for Tomanak's sake! Why, the Empire hadn't seen a proved demon sighting in over forty years! It would have been bad enough, Phrobus take it, if the song had treated it all with proper dignity, but this-! One of the bards at his father's high table might have sung such mythic deeds properly, to teach and inspire, even though all who heard his song would know it was myth. But this… this… this ditty had the sheer effrontery to suggest such things had really happened, to give Bahzell credit for them by name, and to do it all as if it were some sort of game! As if someone who claimed to be a champion of Tomanak were no more than a topic for sport!
The insult had been too much for him, and Sir Yorhus' efforts to calm him had been worse than useless. Vaijon knew the knight-commander was displeased by Bahzell's presence, but the older knight had tried valiantly to point out that it scarcely mattered what ignorant, lowborn laborers and seamen thought about the Order or its members. Certainly their brethren had cause to be disappointed, even angry, over the insult, but it was their duty to rise above it and ignore it lest in reacting to it they bring still more ridicule upon the Order.
It had been an unfortunate choice of argument. Had Sir Yorhus tried, he could not possibly have said anything better calculated to fan Vaijon's rage, and the younger knight had stormed out of the tavern. Nor had the long, frigid hike back to the chapter house cooled his blazing anger. Indeed, it had grown only worse during his walk.
Had he been even a bit less furious, Vaijon might have recognized why the song had crystallized all the resentment and discontent-the disappointment-he'd labored under since Bahzell's arrival. But he wasn't that one bit less furious, and he was disappointed. It wasn't something he'd put into so many words for himself. Indeed, it was something he would not-could not-allow himself to put into words, even in the privacy of his own mind. But deep inside he knew, whatever he could or could not admit to himself, that he'd been betrayed. By choosing someone like Bahzell as His champion, the War God had broken faith with Vaijon of Almerhas. By forcing him to acknowledge the paramount authority of someone not fit to keep the Earl of Truehelm's swine, Tomanak mocked thirty generations of the House of Almerhas.
But since Vaijon could not permit himself to blame the God, there was only one person he could blame, and he ground his teeth still harder as he stalked down the passage towards his small, spartan chamber. He fought his rage as he might have fought a servant of the Dark, for even in his fury he knew a knight of the Order should never feel such things. But he was only human, and he was very young, and his fight against it only made it stronger as humiliation at his inability to vanquish it coiled within him.
And then he turned a corner without looking and staggered back with an "Oof!" of shock as he ran full-tilt into someone coming the other way and almost fell.
"Your pardon," he began stiffly, catching his balance somehow and managing to keep his feet, "I-"
But then he saw the one he was addressing, and the words died on his tongue.
"No matter, lad," Bahzell said comfortably. "The passage isn't overwide, and I'm one as takes up a goodly bit of any road. So-"
"Don't patronize me!" Vaijon snapped.
Even as the words burst from him, he knew he was in the wrong. Such discourtesy was worse than wrong, for it violated his oath to the Order. He was a knight-probationer, not even a full knight-companion, and this man was a champion. But it didn't matter. Or, rather, it did matter… and there was nothing he could do about it. Betrayal and fury blazed in his blue eyes, and he saw the hradani's normally mild gaze harden, saw the ears fold back and the right hand steal to the hilt of the dagger at his belt, and he didn't care.
"I wasn't after 'patronizing' anyone, Sir Vaijon." The deep, bass rumble was hard, anger grumbling in its depths like boulders coming down a cliff, and the bright, hungry flicker in Bahzell's eyes would have warned another hradani of just how deep was the danger in which he stood. But Vaijon was human, not hradani, and he had never seen a hradani in the grip of the Rage. He had no concept of what he faced in that moment, yet despite his own fury he recognized, however imperfectly, the control Bahzell exerted over himself.
Yet that only made it worse, for Bahzell spoke as a grown man should speak, and all Vaijon heard was an adult rebuking an enraged, spoiled child by example.
"Oh, yes you were!" he spat, unable to contain the hurricane of emotions whirling within him. "Well, I don't need your 'understanding,' hradani! I don't need anything from you, or your stinking clan, or-"
The whipcrack authority of that single word cut through Vaijon's white-hot tirade like a knife, and he froze. For one dreadful instant the entire universe seemed to hold its breath, unmoving, waiting, paralyzed between one moment and the next. But then that illusory eternity ended… and the reality was worse than the illusion. Far worse.
"I find you discourteous, Sir Vaijon," the voice behind him continued, colder than a Vonderland winter and sharper than a Dwarvenhame blade. "You forget yourself and the honor due a champion of our God, and in the doing, you insult Him Whom we serve with blade and blood and soul."
"I'm thinking it was naught but-" Bahzell began.
"Peace, Milord Champion." Charrow's voice was respectful but harder than iron. For once, there was no hint of deference in it as the master of the Belhadan chapter asserted his authority, and Bahzell shut his own mouth, then drew a deep breath and jerked his head in an unhappy nod.
"Well, Sir Vaijon?" Sir Charrow turned back to the knight-probationer. "Have you anything to say for yourself?"
"I-" Vaijon swallowed and made himself face the older man. The mentor, he realized in that moment, whom he respected most in all the world… and whom he had just failed. But not even that realization could quench the outrage blazing at his core, and he stared at Sir Charrow, trapped between obedience, shame, and the fury which would not release him.
"I asked a question, Sir Knight," Charrow said very, very quietly, and Vaijon's anger burst up afresh.
"Why?" he demanded bitterly. "Whatever I say will be wrong, won't it? He's a champion of the Order, isn't he? Anything he does is right, and whatever I do is wrong!"
Charrow blinked at the raw anguish Vaijon's rage could no longer disguise, and a part of him went out to the younger man. Yet only a part, for what he heard from Vaijon was the hurt and anger of a child, and no knight-probationer of Tomanak was a child. He looked at Vaijon pityingly for a moment, but then his face hardened.
"You-" he began, but Vaijon had whirled away from him to Bahzell.
"You!" he snapped. "You're the one who insults the God! Your very presence is an insult to him!" He glared up at the hradani, taloned hands half outstretched, panting like a man at the limit of his endurance. "What can you know of what the God demands of His warriors, hradani? None of your accursed kind have ever served the Light-it was you who brought the Dark to power in Kontovar! Did Phrobus send you to ape the part of a champion? Are you here to give Norfressa to the Dark, as well?"
Sir Charrow froze, a deathly hush seemed to spread to fill the chapter house, and Vaijon went parchment white as he realized what he'd said. He stood there, feeling his entire life crashing down about him, and he couldn't move even when Charrow reached out and, without a word, unbuckled the belt which supported his sword and dagger.
"You have disgraced yourself and the Order," the older man grated in a voice like crumbling granite, "and we take back the weapons you bore in the God's name."
Vaijon's hands moved in small, hopeless arcs, as if they longed-needed-to snatch back the blades Sir Charrow had taken. But they couldn't, and horror filled his eyes.
"The commandery shall be summoned to determine your fate," Charrow went on. "You will be judged before the brethren you have dishonored, and-"
"Just one moment, Sir Charrow." The knight-captain looked up quickly as a voice colder than a dagger's kiss interrupted him. Sir Vaijon turned more slowly, like a poorly managed puppet, and Bahzell bared his teeth in an icy smile that belonged on something from the depths of a Ghoul Moor winter.
"Yes, Milord Champion?" Charrow spoke with the same formality, but there was a worried crease between his brows as he tried to interpret Bahzell's expression, for no more than Vaijon had he ever seen the Rage in a hradani's eyes. There was anger in those eyes, that much the chapter master knew, but there was something else, as well. A deep, terrible something-a fusion of cruelty colder than Vonderland's ice and a dark passion crackling like heat from an opened furnace door-that reached out for all about Bahzell with talons of freezing flame.
"I'm thinking as how the insult was after being to me, not to your brethren," he rumbled.
"To you, and through you to the God Himself," Sir Charrow agreed, "but it was offered by a member of the Order, and so the dishonor is to us."
"As to that, himself can be taking care of his own insults, and I'm not so very interested in the dishonor," the hradani said in a voice of chill iron, and hardened warrior though he was, Sir Charrow felt himself shudder as the hungry smile that reached out almost lovingly to Vaijon drove a sliver of terror deep into him. "You've the right of it in that much, my lad," the Horse Stealer told the paralyzed young knight, "for I'm naught but what you see before you. Old Tomanak 'd split his guts with laughter, like enough, if I was to go about calling myself 'Sir This' or 'Champion That,' and my family tree's not nearly so pretty as some, I'll wager. But it's me you've made your tongue so free of-not Sir Charrow, not the Order, just me, Bahzell Bahnakson. And so I'm thinking it's me you should be after answering to, not your brethren."
"Milord, you can't-" Charrow began in a quick, urgent voice, but a raised hand cut him off, and Bahzell's deadly eyes froze him into silence.
"You've been after calling me a champion of Tomanak for days now," he said flatly. "Am I such?" Charrow nodded helplessly, and Bahzell bared his teeth again. "And would it happen a champion has the right to administer his own understanding of Scale-Balancer's justice?" Charrow nodded once more. "And would that justice be like to supersede your commandery's?" Charrow had no choice but to nod yet again, and Bahzell nodded back, then jerked his chin at Vaijon.
"In that case, you'd best be giving yonder lordling back his weapons, Sir Charrow, for he'll need them come morning."
He turned that blood-freezing smile directly upon Vaijon, and his hungry voice was soft as serpent scales on stone.
"You've plenty to say about barbarians and hradani and servants of the Dark, Vaijon of Almerhas. Well, come morning, here's one barbarian will show you what hradani truly are."