Sir Vaijon did not spend a restful night.
In fairness, his insomnia owed little to fear. Never having lost in the last eight strenuous, often brutal, years of training, he simply could not conceive of losing now, to anyone, yet there was more to it than simple self-confidence could explain. Despite the unforgivable actions he knew his fury had betrayed him into committing, he was a knight of Tomanak who had sworn obedience to the Order and to those set to command him. Now he was foresworn, disbarred in his own eyes, as well as his fellows', from their ranks, and he knew that, as well. Yet whatever failings Bahzell Bahnakson might have as a champion of Tomanak , and whether he realized it or not, he had given Sir Vaijon an opportunity to reverse that judgment by making their confrontation what was, for all intents and purposes, a trial at arms to be judged by Tomanak Himself.
It was a trial Sir Vaijon did not intend to lose, yet he found he could not approach it as he had any other contest under arms. Not because he doubted his own prowess, but because deep inside, some little piece of him whispered that he ought to lose. Hard as he might try, he could find no excuse for his conduct. Sir Charrow was right; he had disgraced himself and the Order. A defiant part of his heart might still cry out in bitter disillusionment that Tomanak had no right to waste such honor on a barbarian, but even granting that, a true knight had no excuse for such behavior. And so, even as the thought of besting the hradani and proving Bahzell had no right to the position he claimed filled him with a fiery determination, he could not escape the unhappy suspicion-small and faint, but damnably persistent-that perhaps this time he did not deserve to win.
At first, as he watched that night beside his weapons, he pushed away any thought of defeat whenever it surfaced. Instead, he filled his mind with memories of how Bahzell had transgressed, of how the hradani's mere presence filled him with fury, and promised himself that the morrow would see all his anger and betrayal assuaged. But as the night crept slowly, slowly past, he made himself look the possibility that he might lose in the eye, and he was almost surprised by what he saw there, for Bahzell had made it a trial at arms. If Vaijon lost, he would probably die. He was too young to truly believe that, though he recognized the possibility in an intellectual sort of way, but the thought that if he did lose he would at least have been punished for his actions was obscurely comforting. He fully intended to emerge victorious and thus expunge the stain of those acts, yet defeat would erase them in another fashion, and the deep and abiding devotion to Tomanak which had first brought him to the Order was glad that it would be so.
"Ah, you're not actually planning to, well-?" Brandark paused delicately and cocked his truncated ear at Bahzell as his friend buckled the straps joining his breast and back plates and adjusted them carefully.
"To what?" the huge Horse Stealer demanded, not looking up from his task.
"I realize Vaijon is a pain in the arse," Brandark replied somewhat indirectly, "and there've been times enough when I wanted to put him out of my misery. But I was only wondering exactly what you intended to do to him this morning."
" 'Do to him,' is it now?" Bahzell finished fiddling with the last strap and looked up at last, and his deep voice rumbled derisively. "Surely you've been after hearing the same as me, Brandark, my lad. Yon Vaijon is Tomanak's own gift to mortals with sword or lance! Why, he's after being downright invincible, and my heart's all aflutter with terror of him." The Horse Stealer's smile was cold enough to confirm the suspicions Sir Charrow's oblique questions had awakened in Brandark, and he began to feel true alarm.
"Now let's not do anything hasty, Bahzell. No one could deny you've got every right to be angry, but he's only a youngster, and one who's been spoiled rotten, to boot. It's plain as the nose on your face-or my face, for that matter-no one ever told him-"
"It's too late to tell me such as that, Brandark," Bahzell said, lifting his sword down from the wall rack and slinging the baldric over his shoulder, and his voice was so grim Brandark frowned. "And Vaijon's no 'youngster,' " the Horse Stealer added even more grimly. "He's as old for his folk as either of us is after being for ours, and a belted knight, to boot. Well, he's always after yammering about knightly this and knightly that and chivalric the other, and the whole time he's sulking like a spoiled brat, and I'm thinking it's past time he was after finding out just what all that means. Aye, him and all the other nose-lifters minded to think like him."
"But-" Brandark began once more, then closed his mouth with a click at Bahzell's glower.
Sir Charrow Malakhai wrapped his cloak about himself and tried to hide his gnawing worry as he stood waiting in the center of the huge, echoing salle. The training room's floor had been covered with fresh sawdust, and the scent of it filled his nose with a resinous richness, spiced with the tang of coal smoke from the fires seething in the huge hearths at either end of the room.
Most northern chapters of the chivalric orders had salles like this one, and the weather raging outside the thick walls reminded Charrow of why that was. Blasts of wind rattled the skylights which admitted the gray, cold light of a snow-laced morning, and despite the fires, his breath was a thin mist before him. Outdoor weapons training in such weather was out of the question, although he supposed one could always teach courses in how to survive under blizzard conditions. But this morning the training salle would serve another, grimmer purpose, and he sighed as he checked the lighting once more.
Huge lanterns burned before brightly polished reflectors, filling the cavernous room with light that would be fair to both parties, and with the sole exception of those assigned to duty as door wardens, every member of the chapter currently in Belhadan had gathered as witnesses. Knights, squires, and lay-brothers alike, they packed the trestle benches set up down the long sides of the salle with a sea of green tunics and surcoats, and that sea stirred restlessly as whispered conversations rustled across its surface. Sir Charrow glanced at them, and his brown eyes hardened as they rested on the knot filling the center of the front two benches along the west wall. Sir Yorhus and Sir Adiskael were the focus of that knot and, if truth be told, Charrow was far more furious with them than he was with Vaijon.
Vaijon was an arrogant, willful child whose father should have spent more time tanning his posterior than spoiling him with gifts… or filling his head with nonsense about his family's incomparable lineage. He shouldn't be-not at this stage of his life-but he was, and today he would pay for it. Yorhus and Adiskael were senior members of the Order, both in their late thirties, who had served Tomanak well in the field. That gave them a responsibility to lead by example, yet they were as disgusted as Vaijon himself by the notion of a hradani champion… and neither was as straightforward as he about it.
In every way that counted, the pair of them were far more dangerous to Bahzell than Vaijon could ever be, but Sir Charrow had been slow to recognize that, and he wondered if the hradani realized it even now.
The Order of Tomanak had fewer factional struggles than most chivalric orders, yet the sort of people who'd chosen to sit with Yorhus and Adiskael had alerted Charrow to a problem he hadn't realized he had. One which might cut deep into the bone and muscle of the Belhadan chapter. The knights-commander weren't arrogant. They didn't see Bahzell's elevation to the status of champion as an insult to their personal honor. But they felt just as betrayed as Vaijon, for they were zealots who hated and despised hradani, and Sir Charrow hadn't even guessed they felt that way.
Yet now that his eyes had been opened, the knight-captain wondered how he could possibly have missed it before. Perhaps it had grown so gradually that no one would have noticed it, or perhaps he'd been unwilling to see it. That didn't really matter now. What mattered was that it had happened… and that the Order of Tomanak simply could not tolerate the bigotry some ecclesiastic orders put up with. The Order's impartial devotion to truth and its even-handed administration of justice must be forever above question. That was what made Yorhus and Adiskael so dangerous. They hadn't shouted their disgust openly, as Vaijon had. Instead, they had used soft words-words Charrow could not believe they had chosen accidentally-to hammer home suspicion of Bahzell with a smooth rationality that was almost seductive.
Vaijon's firebrand fury only made those softer words sound even more reasonable. Indeed, Charrow felt grimly confident that the older knights had deliberately encouraged his rage, and that willingness to twist and manipulate in the name of their own prejudices made them and the half-dozen others who sat with them a cancer at the Order's heart. It attacked the very essence of their calling to open-minded, honest examination of the facts in any dispute, even among themselves, and Charrow felt a fresh stab of worry as he wondered how he was going to deal with the problem they represented. That he would deal with it was a given-the Order of Tomanak did not choose chapter masters who shrank from their duties-but he was honest enough to admit he dreaded it.
Of course I do, he told himself impatiently. What sane person wouldn't, especially with the support they seem to enjoy? But at least my eyes have been opened to the fact that I must deal with it, and for that I thank Tomanak… and Bahzell.
His mouth quirked. The Order's histories said champions had a way of bringing things to a head and that they tended to arrive for that very purpose at the times one least expected them, but he rather doubted Bahzell Bahnakson regarded himself in that light. But then his half-smile faded, and he shivered as he remembered the hunger which had echoed in the Horse Stealer's ice-cold promise to show Vaijon "what hradani truly are."
For all the young knight-probationer's flaws, and Tomanak knew they were legion, Charrow loved him. He sometimes wondered if that was why Vaijon had failed to overcome those flaws. Had Charrow, as his mentor, taken the wrong approach? Should he have accepted that it was time someone beat some sense into that handsome, golden-haired head rather than persist in his efforts to show Vaijon the way? Yet there had been something else about the youngster, from the moment Charrow first laid eyes upon him. There truly was a strength and power inside him, hidden by the spoiled demeanor and choked in a thorny thicket of arrogance. Charrow had wanted to save that power, to awaken Vaijon to the potential he represented and train him in its use, and so, perhaps, he had let things go too far, spent too long trying to repair the weak spots in an imperfect vessel rather than hammering that vessel with the flail of discipline to see if it was strong enough to withstand the blows required to mend its flaws. Had-
His thoughts broke off as Bahzell and Brandark strode through the door in the center of the north wall. The Bloody Sword looked anxious, as if he were less concerned by how the trial might end than by the consequences of that end, but Bahzell's face might have been forged of iron. He wore no expression at all as he halted, helmet in the crook of his right arm, kite-shaped shield on his left. The hilt of his sword thrust up over his shoulder, and even Yorhus and Adiskael and their cronies hushed their murmured conversations as the lantern light fell upon him.
Seven and a half feet tall he stood, as broad and hard looking as the mountains in which Belhadan had her roots, and his brown eyes were cold. Danger clung to him like winter fog and, despite himself, Charrow swallowed. He had never faced hradani in battle; now, looking upon Bahzell Bahnakson, he realized how fortunate he had been.
Another door opened, this one in the salle's southern wall, and Vaijon stepped through it. Like Bahzell, he was bareheaded, carrying his helmet, but there the similarities ended. Bahzell was grim and still, a towering cliff of plain, burnished steel and the muted tones of leather harness, but Vaijon glittered like the War God Himself. Silver-washed chain flickered in the lantern light, silk and gems and blinding white leather added their magnificence to his presence, and his golden hair shone like a prince's crown. He was a foot shorter than his foe, but he moved with catlike grace, and if Bahzell's eyes were cold, his blazed with determination.
A fresh mutter went up, and Charrow's stomach tightened as he heard it. It came from Yorhus and Adiskael's followers, and it carried the unmistakable echo of approval for Vaijon's cause.
But he had little time to think about that as Vaijon strode towards Bahzell, and he straightened his own spine as they approached him. Normally, there would have been at least two referees to serve as score keepers; today there were none, for this was no training exercise. The combatants were not armed with the blunted weapons of practice, and their scores would be kept only in the wounds they wreaked upon one another.
Bahzell and Vaijon stopped with a perfectly matched timing which could not have been intentional, each precisely one pace short of Charrow, and he looked back and forth between them. Under any other circumstances, it would have been his duty to attempt to dissuade them from combat even now, but Bahzell had made that impossible. The huge hradani who had been so reluctant to exert his prerogatives had never even hesitated this time, and he was right. A champion's authority did supersede even that of the Order's commandery. He, and he alone, could avert this confrontation, and his cold expression said all too clearly that he had no intention of averting it. And so Charrow made no effort to remind them of their brotherhood within the Order or to beg them to reconcile. He only cleared his throat sadly, then made his voice come out as clear and calm as he could.
"Brothers of the Order, you are here to meet under arms," he told them simply. "May Tomanak judge rightly in the quarrel between you."
He took one step backwards, turned, and walked to the high-backed chair which awaited him. He seated himself in it and watched as Bahzell and Vaijon nodded coldly to one another and donned their helmets. Then steel whispered as they drew their blades, and he waited one more moment, as if engraving the tableau before him on his memory.
Vaijon's longsword gleamed in his hand, and not even the gems which crusted its hilt could hide its lethality. It was a beautiful bauble, yes, yet it was the work of a master swordsmith, as well, a yard-long tongue of steel, as deadly as it was gorgeous, and sharp enough to slice the wind itself.
Bahzell's sword boasted no such decorations. Its blade was two feet longer, but it was a plain, utilitarian weapon whose only beauty lay in the perfection of its function. The hradani held it one-handed, without so much as a wrist tremor to indicate its massive weight, yet Vaijon's body language was assured. His weapon might be shorter, but it was also far lighter. It would be quicker and handier, and he was clearly confident in his own prowess and the speed of his own reflexes.
For an instant longer Sir Charrow watched them, and then he said one last word.
Bahzell stood motionless, eyes glittering on either side of his open-faced helm's nasal bar, and the right side of his mouth drew up in a dangerous smile. He felt the Rage flicker in the corners of his soul, trying to rouse and take control, and he ground an inner heel down upon it. He had felt it, known he hovered on the brink of an instant and lethal explosion when Vaijon insulted him, and even now he felt the hot blood hunger calling to him. It would taste so sweet to yield himself to it. To call upon it to smash and rend the personification of all the insults and hatred he had felt from those who should have been his brothers. He had never asked them to become such. It was their own code, their own precious Order, which insisted that they should have, and somehow that had made their abhorrence cut even deeper. Now he had not simply the opportunity but the excuse to repay them all, and the Rage cried out to him, demanding that he set it free to do just that. But deeply as he longed to do just that, Bahzell Bahnakson refused to give himself to it this day. It was hard to fight the terrible need, the hunger-harder than any human could ever have suspected-and it took every ounce of discipline he possessed, yet he had no choice but to fight it. The outcome of this fight was too important for anything else.
Then Vaijon uncoiled in a lightning-fast attack. The blow came without warning, in a light-silvered blur of steel with absolutely no clue of changing expression or tensing muscles to alert its victim, and Bahzell felt a distant flicker of admiration for Vaijon's trainers. It took years of harsh, unremitting practice to teach one's self to launch an attack in deadly earnest without betraying one's intention.
But Bahzell had been trained in an equally unforgiving school, and his brown eyes didn't even flicker as his right hand moved. His five-foot blade would have been a two-handed weapon for any human, but Bahzell wielded it as lightly as a Sothoii sabre. Steel belled furiously as he met the attack blade to blade, without even bothering to interpose his shield, and he sensed Vaijon's shock at the speed of his parry.
The human fell back a step, eyes narrowed behind the slit of his helm, but Bahzell only stood there, still smiling that small, cold smile. His ears twitched derisively, and his refusal to follow Vaijon up mocked the young knight, jeering at him as Bahzell displayed his own confidence. And then the Horse Stealer's shield made a small beckoning motion. It was a tiny thing, as much sensed as seen, yet it struck Vaijon like a lash. It dismissed him, dared him to do his worst, and he snarled as he accepted the challenge.
Yet for all its fury, his rage was not enough to betray his training. Instead, he drew upon the power of his anger, forcing it to serve rather then rule him. He came at Bahzell perfectly balanced, with a speed and brilliance which made more than one of the veteran warriors watching him hiss in appreciation. Three strides he took, with a dancer's grace, longsword licking out with viperish speed, and his shield was another weapon, not merely a passive defense. It slammed into Bahzell's shield like a battering ram, backed by all the power of Vaijon's hard-trained, powerful weight, and the sound of collision was a sharp, ear-shocking Crack!
Many of those watching had seen Vaijon launch the same attack in training. It had never failed when executed properly… and Vaijon had never executed it any other way. It came in at precisely the correct angle, and it should have smashed Bahzell's shield to the side, battered him sideways, opened the way to his body for Vaijon's blade even as it staggered him and drove his weight back on his heels.
But Bahzell wasn't staggered. He didn't even seem to shift balance. He simply took Vaijon's full weight, and all the momentum of his charge, and absorbed it. It was Vaijon who bounced, eyes wide in disbelief, as Bahzell twisted his arm and tossed their locked shields-and Vaijon-aside so that his stroke went wide… and left him wide open for the hradani's riposte.
Someone in the watching audience bit off a shocked shout as Bahzell's blade flicked out almost negligently. The blow seemed effortless, almost gentle, but it sounded like an axe in seasoned oak as it landed, and Vaijon staggered back another stride as Bahzell lopped a huge chunk from the side of his shield.
The younger man tried to gather himself, regain his balance, but Bahzell wouldn't let him. The hradani stood motionless no longer, and Vaijon felt a totally unfamiliar surge of panic. It wasn't fear, really, for there wasn't time for it to become that. It was surprise-disbelief and even shock-that anyone the Horse Stealer's size could move so quickly, coupled with the feeling that he himself had somehow been mired in quicksand. Huge as he was, Bahzell moved like a dire cat, with a deadly precision whose like Vaijon had never before encountered. His huge sword sang, impossibly quick, lashing out as if it weighed no more than a walking stick as he flicked the blade in strokes that looked effortless even as every one of them carved yet another chunk out of Vaijon's shield.
Other knights came to their feet as Vaijon reeled back, mercilessly driven by his unrelenting foe, and Sir Charrow watched in a disbelief as great as that any of his brother knights felt. Bahzell wasn't attacking Vaijon directly. He was attacking Vaijon's shield, ignoring openings to the other's body, using that huge sword like a hammer to batter the smaller, slighter human back and back and yet further back. He all but ignored Vaijon's sword, as well, using his own shield with almost contemptuous ease to brush aside the few, desperate attacks the younger man managed to launch.
If it was hard for the rest of the chapter to believe, it was even harder for Vaijon. He'd never experienced anything like it, never imagined an attack like this was possible. No one could maintain that furious, driving rhythm-not with something as massive and clumsy as a two-handed sword! Bahzell had to tire, had to slow, had to lose his cadence and give him at least an instant to regain his balance!
But that tree trunk arm didn't tire… and it didn't slow. Vaijon tried to twist his body, tried to set himself and thrust Bahzell back, and it didn't work. Then he tried to fall back faster than Bahzell could follow, tried to get outside the other's reach, open the range at least enough to rob the hradani's blows of their power, and that didn't work, either. Bahzell had too much reach advantage, and he seemed to sense Vaijon's moves even before the human attempted them. He followed up, hacking, hacking, hacking at Vaijon's shield, and splinters flew as that merciless blade reduced it to wreckage.
Vaijon panted for breath, too astonished by the boundless power of Bahzell's attack to feel fear even now, but it was obvious to every watcher that he was totally at the hradani's mercy. Bahzell was toying with him as he drove him back in a staggering, lurching parody of his normal, tigerish grace. The hradani battered the younger man back until Vaijon's heel caught on the hearth at the southern end of salle. The golden-haired knight staggered for balance, half-falling, and a deep, rustling sigh went up from the audience as he faltered, exposing himself for Bahzell's coup-de-grace.
But Bahzell didn't deliver it. Instead the hradani stepped back with a deep, booming laugh. The mockery in it cut like a lash, and Vaijon's half-strangled gasp for breath was also a sob of rage and shame as he hurled himself forward once more behind his shattered shield. The tip of his blade came up, thrusting murderously for Bahzell's exposed face, but the hradani's shield slammed the sword-and swordsman-aside. Vaijon bounced back from the blow and went half-way to one knee, and this time Bahzell was on him in an instant.
The hradani wasted no more time driving his enemy about the salle. He had only one purpose now, and Sir Charrow felt himself frozen motionless in his chair as Bahzell Bahnakson of the Horse Stealer hradani gave the Belhadan chapter of the Order of Tomanak a merciless lesson in who and what he was. A single savage blow smashed what remained of Vaijon's shield into dangling wreckage, hanging from his shield arm to entangle and hinder without affording the least protection. Vaijon fought to interpose his longsword, but Bahzell's blade crashed down upon it, and steel rang like an anvil. The younger man went all the way down on his right knee, and Bahzell struck again, twisting in with brutal, side-armed power. Steel belled and clangored again, like harsh, explosive music ugly with hate, and Vaijon's sword flew through the air, spinning end-over-end. It landed in the sawdust fifteen feet away, and Sir Charrow lunged to his feet at last as Bahzell's sword came down yet again.
Yet the knight-captain's shout of protest died unspoken. Vaijon was defenseless, and the hradani would have been completely within his rights to finish him once and for all. But instead, the massive sword came in from the side, the flat of the blade striking Vaijon's shield arm like a blacksmith's sledge, and the knight-probationer cried out. His mail sleeve could blunt that blow; it couldn't stop it, and his forearm snapped like a dry branch. And then Bahzell struck yet again, and Vaijon cried out once more as his sword arm broke as well. He slumped fully to his knees, both arms broken, crouching at Bahzell's feet, and the hradani stretched out his sword once more-gently this time, with the precision of a surgeon-until its lancet tip rested precisely against his plate gorget.
"Well now, Sir Vaijon of Almerhas," a voice rumbled. It was deep and steady, unwinded and coldly mocking. "I'm thinking I promised to show you what hradani truly are, but it's in my mind as how you're not overpleased with the lesson. Still, there's little need for me to be after showing you, for you already know, don't you now? Aye, it's a rare, bloodthirsty lot my people are, so I'm thinking there no reason at all, at all, why I shouldn't be pushing this-" metal grated with a small, tooth-clenching squeal as he twisted his wrist, grinding the tip of his blade against Vaijon's gorget "-right through your arrogant throat, now is there?"
Vaijon stifled a whimper-of pain, not for mercy-and gazed up along the glittering edge of the five-foot blade resting against his throat. Absolute silence hovered in the salle, and fear flickered in his blue eyes at last. That fear was made only sharper and deeper by the fact that he'd never truly expected to feel it, yet he refused to beg, and Bahzell smiled. It was a grim smile, but there was a hint of approval in it, and he eased the pressure on his sword.
"Still and all," he said quietly, "it might just be you've a thing or two to learn yet, Vaijon of Almerhas, and not about hradani alone. I'm thinking himself can't be feeling any too pleased with you just now, for I've yet to meet a more conceited, miserable excuse for one of his knights."
Vaijon felt his face go scarlet within the concealment of his helm, despite the shock and pain of his broken arms, as that deep, rumbling voice hammered spikes of shame into him. They hurt even more than shattered bone, those spikes, for they were completely deserved, and he knew it.
"If I were wanting your life, my lad, I'd already have had it," Bahzell told him almost compassionately, "but for all you've worked yourself into a right sorry position just now with me and with himself, as well, you've some steel in your spine and some gravel in your gullet. Aye, and I doubt you've ever had a conniving thought in your life-unlike some." The hradani let his eyes rest briefly on Sir Yorhus of Belhadan's strained face, then looked back down at Vaijon. "It's a pity, perhaps, that you've so much bone in your skull to go with the steel, but I've been known to be a mite stubborn myself, from time to time. I've a notion himself would think it a bit harsh to be taking someone's head just because he's acted the fool, however well he was after doing it. So tell me, Vaijon of Almerhas, would it be that you're minded to be just a mite more open-minded about who himself can be choosing as his champions?"
"I-" Vaijon bit his lip until he tasted blood, then sucked in a huge lungful of air and made himself nod. "Yes, Milord Champion," he said, his voice loud and clear enough to carry to every corner of the salle despite his shame and the waves of pain flooding through his arms.
"Your skill at arms has vanquished me, yet your mercy has spared my life," the young knight forced himself to go on, "proving both your prowess and your right to the honor to which the God has called you." He paused, and then continued levelly. "More, you have reminded me of what I chose in my arrogance to forget or ignore, Milord. Tomanak alone judges who among His servants are fit to be His champions, not we who serve Him. Sir Charrow sought to teach me that. To my shame, I refused to learn it of his gentleness, but even the most vain and foolish knight can learn when the lesson is tailored properly to his needs, Milord Champion."
His pain-tightened mouth quirked a wry smile within his helm, and Bahzell withdrew his sword entirely.
"Aye, well as to that, lad," he said with a ghost of a laugh, "you'd not believe what it took for my father to hammer a lesson into my own head when I'd the bit between my teeth. I'd not want to say I was stubborn, you understand, but-"
"But I would," another voice interrupted, and Vaijon of Almerhas' eyes went huge and round as another armed and armored figure flicked suddenly into existence behind Bahzell. The newcomer stood at least ten feet tall, brown haired and brown eyed, with a sword on his back and a mace at his belt, and the deep, bass thunder of his words made even Bahzell's powerful voice sound light as a child's.
Sir Charrow went instantly to one knee, followed just as quickly by every other person in the salle. All but one, for as the others knelt before the power and majesty of Tomanak Orfro, Sword of Light and Judge of Princes, Bahzell turned to face him with a quizzical expression and cocked ears.
"Would you, now?" he said, and more than one witness quailed in terror as he stood square-shouldered to face his god.
"I would," Tomanak told him with a smile, "and I feel quite confident your father would agree with me. Shall we ask him?"
"I'm thinking I'd just as soon not be bothering him, if it's all the same to you," Bahzell replied with dignity, and Tomanak laughed. The sound shook the salle with its power and pressed against those who heard it like a storm, and he shook his head.
"I see you've learned some discretion," he said, and looked down at Vaijon. "The question, my knight," he said more softly, "is whether or not you have."
"I… I hope so, Lord." Vaijon had no idea where he'd found the strength to whisper those words, for as his god's brown eyes burned into him, they completed the destruction of the arrogance Bahzell had humbled at last. He was naked before those eyes, his soul exposed to the terrible power of their knowledge, for they belonged to the God of Justice and of Truth, and their power unmasked all the petty conceits and pompous self-importance which had once seemed so important for what they truly were.
Yet there was a strange mercy in that searing moment of self-revelation. He didn't even feel shame, for there was too vast a gulf between himself and the power of the being behind those eyes, and if no secret cranny of his soul was beyond their reach, then neither did they conceal their essence from him. He was aware of his abasement, of the countless ways in which he had fallen short of the standards Tomanak demanded of his sworn followers, yet he also felt Tomanak's willingness to grant him a fresh start. Not to forgive him, but to allow him to forgive himself and prove he could learn, that he could become worthy of the god he had always longed to serve.
And as that awareness flowed through him, Vaijon of Almerhas saw at last the link between Tomanak and Bahzell Bahnakson. They were akin, the champion and his god, joined on some deep, profound level which Vaijon glimpsed only faintly even now. It was as if a flicker of Tomanak was inextricably bound up with Bahzell's soul, an indivisible part of him, muted and filtered through the hradani into something mere mortals could trust and follow. Someone in whom they could see a standard to which they might actually aspire, a mirror and an inspiration which shared their own mortality. And that, Vaijon realized suddenly, was what truly made a champion. The dauntless will and stubborn determination which stopped short of his own shallow arrogance-which was almost humble in admitting its limitations yet had the tempered-steel courage of its convictions within those limitations-and the strength to endure an intimacy with the power of godhood few mortals could even imagine. It wasn't anything Bahzell did; it was who and what he was. In that moment Vaijon knew he saw the myriad connections and cross-connections between champion and deity far more clearly than Bahzell himself ever would, and in seeing them, understood why Bahzell greeted Tomanak upon his feet, not his knees, and the profound respect which underlay his apparent insouciance.
"Yes, I think you have learned, Vaijon," Tomanak told him after a moment. "It was a hard lesson, but the ones which cut deepest are always hardest, and there is no resentment in your heart." Vaijon blinked, amazed to realize that was true, and Tomanak smiled at him. "So you've learned the entire lesson, not just the easy part, my knight. Good!" Another laugh, this one softer and gentler but no less powerful, rumbled through the salle. "I'm pleased, Vaijon. Perhaps now you'll finally start living up to the potential Charrow always saw within you."
"I'll try, Lord," Vaijon said with unwonted humility.
"I'm sure you will… and that you'll backslide from time to time," Tomanak said. "But, then, even my champions backslide at times, don't they, Bahzell?"
"A mite, perhaps. Now and then," Bahzell conceded.
"Hmm." Tomanak gazed down at his champion for a moment, then nodded. "It seems to me that Vaijon will need a proper example to keep him from losing any of the ground he's gained," he observed, "and having someone to be an example to might just keep you from getting carried away with your own enthusiasm, Bahzell. So perhaps I should entrust Vaijon to your keeping-as your trainee, as it were."
The hradani stiffened, but Tomanak went on before he could interrupt.
"Yes, I think that would be an excellent idea. He needs some field experience, and you'll be able to use all the help you can get in the next few months. Besides-" the war god grinned at his champion's pained expression "-think how well he and your father will get along!"
"Now just one minute, there!" Bahzell began finally. "I'm thinking it's the outside of-"
"Oh, hush, Bahzell! Or are you saying the lad doesn't have the potential for it?"
"Well, as to that," Bahzell said with a glance at Vaijon which the younger man didn't fully understand, "I'll not say yes and I'll not say no. It's likely enough, when all's said, but-"
"Trust me, Bahzell," Tomanak soothed. "It's an excellent idea, even if I do say so myself. And now that that's settled, I'll be going."
"But-" Bahzell began, and then closed his mouth with a snap as Tomanak vanished as suddenly as he'd appeared. The Horse Stealer glowered at the space the god had occupied for several seconds, then growled something under his breath, unslung his shield, and sheathed his sword. He stood in the center of the salle, arms folded, and then glanced up as the profound and utter silence registered upon him.
Scores of eyes looked back at him, huge with awe. The knights and lay-brothers were still on their knees, even Yorhus and Adiskael, gazing raptly at him, and he twitched his shoulders uncomfortably.
Just like himself to be popping in and out like a cheap candle flame, he thought moodily.
"Not a cheap candle, Bahzell," a voice chided out of thin air. "And while you're standing around feeling put upon, don't you think it would be a good idea to heal Vaijon's arms? You did break them, after all."