Chapter Two “He’s certainly tall enough, isn’t he, Milady?” “Yes, Marthya, he is,” Leeana Bowmaster agreed, and the maid hid a small smile at her youthful mistress’ repressive tone.
There was a reason for that repressiveness, she thought, and managed somehow not to giggle at the reflection. “Pity about the ears though, Milady,” she continued in an impishly innocent tone. “He could be almost handsome without them.” ” ‘Handsome’ isn’t exactly the word I’d choose to describe him,” Leeana replied.
Although, if she’d been prepared to be honest with her maid (which she most emphatically was not), she would have argued that the man in question was quite handsome even with the ears.
Indeed, the undeniable edge of otherness they lent him only made him more exotically attractive. “Well, at least he comes closer to handsome than his friend does!” Marthya observed, and this time Leeana chose to make no response at all.
Marthya had known her since childhood, and she was only too capable of putting isolated comments together to divine her charge’s thoughts with devastating accuracy.
Which was not -something -Leeana needed her—or anyone else!—doing at this particular moment.
Especially not where the current object of their attention was concerned. The two of them stood in the concealing shadows of the minstrel gallery above Hill Guard Castle’s great hall.
Below them, Leeana’s father and a dozen or so of his senior officers had just risen to greet two new arrivals.
Well, not new, precisely.
They’d been living at Hill Guard for weeks now.
But they’d been away for several days, on a visit to their own people, and Leeana was afire with curiosity, among other things.
Even her father (who any unprejudiced soul must concede was the best father in the Kingdom) sometimes forgot to mention interesting political information or speculation to a mere daughter.
Besides, the newcomers fascinated Leeana.
She was a Sothōii.
No one had to tell her about the bitter, eternal enmity between her own people and the hradani.
But these two were utterly at odds with the popular stereotype of their people, which would have made them interesting enough without all of the political ramifications of their presence. And, she admitted, Marthya was quite correct about how tall her father’s guest—or captor, depending upon one’s perspective—was. * * * “Welcome back, Prince Bahzell.
And you, too, Lord Brandark.” Tellian Bowmaster, Baron of Balthar and Lord Warden of the West Riding, smiled with a genuine warmth some might have found surprising as he greeted his visitors.
Tellian’s tenor voice was melodious enough, but it always sounded a bit strange coming from someone who stood six and a half inches over six feet in height.
As was true of many of the oldest noble houses of the Sothōii, members of the Bowmaster clan tended to be very tall, for humans, and Tellian was no exception. “It’s thankful for the welcome we are,” the taller of the new arrivals replied in a deep bass that sounded not at all strange rumbling up out of the massive chest of a hradani who stood well over seven and a half feet in his stockings. “Still and all, I’m thinking you might want to be making that welcome a mite less obvious, Milord.” “Why?” Tellian smiled crookedly as he waved Bahzell and his companion towards chairs at the long refectory table before the fire blazing on the hearth.
That hearth was big enough to consume entire trees but, like most fires on the rolling grasslands of the Wind Plain, it burned coal, not wood. “Those who believe I have even the faintest notion of what I’m doing won’t be bothered by it.
And those who are convinced I don’t have any notion won’t like me any more just because I pretend to sulk when you cross my threshold.
That being so, I might as well at least be polite!” “A succinct analysis, Milord,” the smaller of the two hradani observed with a chuckle.
At six feet two inches, Brandark Brandarkson was shorter than Tellian, far less Bahzell, and he dressed like someone who was as close to an overcivilized fop as any hradani could hope to come.
But he was almost squat with muscle, and the shoulders under his exquisitely cut doublets and waistcoats were almost as broad as Bahzell’s.
Despite his shorter stature, he was one of the very few people who came close to matching Bahzell’s lethality in a fight, which had been a handy thing, from time to time, for he was also a bard.
Of sorts. The hradani language was well suited to long, rolling cadences, and richly evocative verse and song.
That was good, for during the darkest periods of their twelve centuries in Norfressa, it was only the oral traditions of their generally illiterate bards which had kept any of their history alive.
Even today, bards were more honored among the hradani than among any other Norfressan people, except, perhaps, the elven lords of Saramantha, and Brandark had the soul of a bard.
He was also a brilliant, completely self-educated scholar, and a talented musician.
But not even his closest friends were willing to pretend that he could actually sing, and his poetry was almost as bad as his voice.
He yearned to craft the epic poems to express the beauty his soul reached out to . . .
And what he actually produced was doggerel.
Witty, entertaining, trenchant doggerel, to be sure, but doggerel.
Which perhaps explained his habit of writing biting, sometimes savage satire.
Indeed, he’d spent years baiting Prince Churnazh of Navahk—something no one else had dared to do—and only the deadliness of the swordsman hiding beneath his foppish exterior had kept him alive while he did it. Those days were behind him now, but his broad grin suggested that his inner satirist found the entire situation which had engulfed his friend and the Sothōii enormously entertaining. Which Bahzell did not. ” ‘Succinct’ is all well and good,” the Horse Stealer growled at his friend. “But there’s enough as would like to see the two of us fall flat on our arses as it is, without us looking all happy to be seeing one another.” “No doubt we should maintain a proper decorum in more public venues,” Tellian conceded. “But this is my home, Bahzell.
I’ll damned well greet anyone I want any way I want in it.” “I can’t say as I can fault you there,” Bahzell said after a moment. “Mind you, I’m thinking there’s more Sothōii would rather see my head on a pike over your gate than my backside in this chair in front of your fire!” “Not many more than the number of hradani who’d like to see my head over your father’s gate in Hurgrum, I imagine,” Tellian replied with a wry smile. “Although at least you didn’t surrender an entire invasion army to a ragtag force of hradani you outnumbered thirty- or forty-to-one.” “But at least Prince Bahzell was also good enough to grant us all parole, Wind Brother,” a shorter, stockier Sothōii pointed out. “Yes, Hathan,” Tellian agreed. “And I accepted his offer—which only makes those who would already have been prepared to be disgusted feel that the honor of all Sothōii has been mortally affronted, as well.
They just can’t decide if they’re more furious with me for the ‘travesty’ of my surrender or with Bahzell for the ‘humiliation’ of his acceptance of it!” “With all due respect, Baron,” Brandark said, nodding his thanks as he reached for the wine glass Hathan had filled for him, “I’d say let them feel as affronted as they want to feel as long as what you and Bahzell are up to manages to keep your people from one another’s throats.
And speaking purely for myself, of course, and admitting that it’s remotely possible I might be slightly prejudiced, I happen to feel you did exactly the right thing, since any solution which left my personal head on my shoulders was a good one.
Which, of course, only underscores the brilliance and wisdom of the people who arrived at it.” Several of the humans seated at the table chuckled, yet their laughter had a darker edge.
Tellian’s decision to “surrender” the unauthorized invasion force Mathian Redhelm had led down the Gullet to attack the city state of Hurgrum was the only thing which had prevented the massacre of the first hradani chapter of the Order of Tomanāk in Norfressan history.
It had also prevented the sack of Hurgrum, the slaughter of innocent women and children, and quite probably a new and even bloodier war between Sothōii and hradani. Unfortunately, not everyone—and not just on the Sothōii side—had been in favor of preventing all those things. — “You may be right,” Hathan acknowledged with a slow smile, then chuckled. “I may have known one or two coursers with tempers worse than Gayrhalan’s, but I know I haven’t known three of them.
There’s a reason for his name, you know.” He chuckled again, louder, and Bahzell grinned at him. “Gayrhalan” meant “Storm Souled” in the Sothōii tongue, and the courser seemed to feel an almost Brandark-like obligation to live up to the image it conjured. “They do say that coursers become more like their riders, and wind riders become more like their -coursers,” Hathan continued, “and since Gayrhalan and I were both already a bit on the obnoxious side before we ever met—” He shrugged, and the laughter was even louder this time. “For all that, though,” the wind rider continued after a moment, his tone at least marginally more serious, “he truly was just showing his temper, however ungracious of him it may have been.” “Oh, never fear, Hathan! There was never after being any least doubt in my mind on that score! It’s battleaxes I’ve seen with blades less impressive than your outsized friend’s teeth.” Bahzell shook his head. “It was then and there that I was after making up my mind not to be calling on him—or on Dathgar, for that matter—without I’d been formally invited.” “How uncharacteristically wise of you,” Brandark murmured in a mildly maliciously provocative voice. Bahzell made a rude gesture at him, but the truth was that both Tellian’s and Hathan’s companions continued to regard all hradani, but especially all Horse Stealer hradani, with profound reservations.
Given that a courser was one of the very few creatures on the face of the earth who could reduce a Horse Stealer to so much gory, trampled jelly, he was eminently prepared to give them as wide a berth as they desired for as long as they wanted it.
However magnificent they might be, and however quickly hradani might heal, now that he’d finally seen them at close quarters, he preferred his bones unbroken. “I’ve no doubt we’ve more than enough other matters to be discussing, Milord,” he continued, returning his attention to Tellian. “Just for a beginning, Father says he and Kilthan have been talking over your notion of a three-way trade up the Escarpment, and he’s of a mind to agree you’ve hit on an excellent idea.
But I’ve a few matters that need doing for the Order, as well, and I’ve messages for Hurthang from Vaijon.
Would it be that he and Kaeritha are somewhere about the place?” “None of us expected you back before tomorrow,” Hathan replied for the baron, “and the two of them went over to the temple this morning.
They’re not back yet, but we can certainly send word for them to return if it’s urgent.” “Well, as to that,” Bahzell said, pushing his chair back and coming to his feet, “I’m thinking there’s no need to be rousting out one of your people to run messages.
I need to be dropping by the temple myself, so if it’s all the same to you, Milord,” he nodded to Tellian, “I’ll just be heading over that way.” * * * “Oh! Excuse me, Prince Bahzell! I didn’t see you.” “No harm done,” Bahzell said mildly, setting the girl back on her feet.
She’d emerged from the half-hidden arch with more speed than decorum, but his reflexes had been good enough to catch her before the actual impact that would have bounced her off her feet.
Her maid came bustling down the stair behind her, then screeched to a halt as she saw her charge being set effortlessly upright by a pair of hands the size of small shovels. The maid—Marthya, he thought her name was, if he recalled correctly—was obviously less than enthralled by the sight, but she didn’t look especially surprised.
Nor was Bahzell, really.
One thing he’d discovered early on about his host’s daughter was that she was utterly lacking in the sort of bored languor which appeared to be the current, carefully cultivated ideal of most aristocratic young Sothōii noblewomen.
It might be too much to call her own accustomed pace headlong, but not by very much. He smiled down at her—however tall she might be for a human child, she was barely even petite for a Horse Stealer girl—and restrained himself with some difficulty from patting her on the head.
She wouldn’t have appreciated it if he’d yielded to the temptation, he thought dryly. Although she had her father’s hair and height, she’d thankfully escaped Tellian’s hawklike profile.
At fourteen, she’d just emerged from the coltishly awkward stage, although there were moments—like this one—when she suffered temporary relapses.
She had an insatiable curiosity to go along with an obviously keen mind, and she obviously found Brandark and Bahzell himself exotically intriguing, no doubt because they were the first hradani she’d actually met.
He found the obvious intensity of her curiosity amusing, but he’d learned to take her questions seriously, despite the fact that someone her age would have remained firmly immured in the schoolroom, had she been one of his sisters.
Leeana’s mother and father, on the other hand, had long since begun her formal tutelage as their only heir.
The shorter-lived humans often seemed to do things with breakneck speed compared to hradani.
So he reminded himself once again that Leeana Bowmaster obviously didn’t consider herself the barely-out-of-leading-strings child he saw when he looked at her. The fact that she was as cute as a basketful of puppies didn’t make it any easier for him to remember that she was—or at least thought she was—older than she looked to him.
The . . .
Irritated looks she gave him when he forgot, however, did.
So he supposed it was something of a wash. “It’s kind of you to be so understanding,” she told him now. “But if I’d been watching where I was going, I would never have come bursting out of the gallery stair and run into you that way.
So if no harm was done, it was only a matter of pure luck.
Please don’t mention to Mother that I did!” She rolled her green eyes. “She already thinks I have the deportment of a stable hand.” “Now, somehow I’m doubtful she’d be putting it quite that way,” Bahzell said with a grin. “Not that she wouldn’t be after having a few tart things to say, I’m sure.
But she’ll not hear about it from me, Milady.” “Thank you.” She smiled up at him warmly. “And might I ask how your visit home went?” she continued. “Better than I’d hoped, more ways than not,” he replied, and shook his head in something very like bemusement. “Father and Mother are well enough, though I’d not have thought anyone could be as busy as they’re after being at the moment.” “I’m not surprised,” she said, and chuckled. “Just keeping up with all your sisters and brothers must be challenge enough without settling all the political problems your father’s facing right now!” “Aye, you’ve got that right enough,” he agreed. “Still and all, they’ve had more than enough experience managing all of us; it’s the rest of my folk keeping their hands full just now.
My Da’s a lot of details to be settling—and some of them ugly ones, too—but I’m thinking things are after beginning to quiet down a mite.” He snorted. “Of course, it could be as how that’s because there’s after being so few left as feel like arguing the fine points with him.
The crows have finished picking over Churnazh’s head, and his son Chalak’s after being so stupid not even the likes of Churnazh’s hangers-on will be following him.
Arsham’s the only one of Churnazh’s get with the brains to be coming in out of a thunderstorm, and they must have come from his mother, for they can’t have been coming from his father! And the fact that he’s bastard-born isn’t so very big a thing to be holding against him in the succession amongst our folk.
So now he’s sworn fealty to Father as Prince of Navahk, the rest of the Bloody Swords are after lining up to do the same.” He glanced at Brandark for a moment, his expression half-apologetic, and shrugged. “If I were being a betting man, which I’m not, I’d put my kormaks on the fighting being over for good and all at last.” Leeana cocked her head in thought.
Most Sothōii might have considered Bahzell’s response to her question a bit odd.
Ladies—and especially gently born ones who were still little more than children—should be sheltered from the brutal realities of the difficult problems and solutions which faced rulers.
Leeana, though, only weighed what he’d said carefully, then nodded.
One thing about her which was not at all childlike, Bahzell thought, was her obviously deep interest in politics.
Or her uncanny ability to grasp the ramifications of her father’s current, convoluted political problems.
For that matter, her grasp of the problems facing Bahzell’s father was better than that quite a few hradani chieftains could claim. “Do you think the fighting is over, too, Lord Brandark?” she asked softly after several seconds of consideration.
She looked at the shorter hradani, and Brandark gazed back at her for a long moment, his eyes more thoughtful than Bahzell’s, then shrugged. “Yes, I do, Milady,” he said. “And while I won’t go so far as to say I’m happy the Bloody Swords have had their feet systematically kicked out from under them by a bunch of loutish Horse Stealers, it’s certainly not a bad thing if the fighting really is over.” He grimaced. “We’ve been killing each other over one imagined insult or another for almost as long as the Horse Stealers and your people have been doing the same thing.
As someone who once wanted to be a bard, I may regret the loss of all those glorious, ballad-inspiring episodes of mutual bloodletting and slaughter.
As a historian, and someone who’s seen the bloodletting in question firsthand, I’d just as soon settle for the ballads we already have.
And all the gods know Bahzell’s father is infinitely preferable to someone like Churnazh.” He kept his tone light, but his gaze was level, and she looked back at him for several heartbeats before she nodded. “I can see that,” she said. “It’s funny, isn’t it? All the songs and tales are full of high adventure, not what really happens in a war.
And I’ve heard lots of songs about splendid victories and defiance even in defeat.
But I don’t think I’ve ever heard even one where the side that lost ends up admitting that it’s better that they didn’t win.” Bahzell’s mobile ears cocked, and one eyebrow arched, but Brandark simply nodded, as if unsurprised by her observation. “It’s not an easy thing to do,” he agreed. “And the bards who write songs suggesting that it’s a good thing their own side got its backside kicked tend to find their audiences less than receptive.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true sometimes, does it?” “No, I don’t suppose it does,” she said, and looked back at Bahzell. “So from what you and Lord Brandark are saying, Prince Bahzell, it sounds as if you may find yourself an official ambassador for the King of the Hradani after all.” Bahzell’s deep, rumbling chuckle could have been alarming if she hadn’t heard it before and known what it was.
She cocked her head at him, and he grinned. “Now, that I won’t be.” He shook his head. “First, I’ve no least desire to be anyone’s ‘official ambassador.’ Second, Milady, I’ve even less of a notion how to go about being one! And third, the one thing my Da’s least likely ever to be calling himself is ‘King of the Hradani.’ ” “There I have to agree with Bahzell,” Brandark agreed with a slightly less rumbling laugh of his own. “Prince Bahnak is many things, Milady, but one thing he’s remarkably free of is anything resembling -delusions of grandeur.
Unlike Bahzell, he’s also a very bright fellow.
Which means he understands exactly how hard a bunch of hradani princes would find it to take anyone who called himself ‘King of the Hradani’ seriously.
I have no idea what title he’ll finally come up with, but I feel confident that it won’t have the word ‘king’ in it anywhere.” “Perhaps not,” she said. “But what he chooses to call himself won’t change what he actually is, now will it?” Her tone was a bit tarter, and the green eyes gazing up at the two hradani were a bit harder. “No, it won’t,” Brandark agreed. “Which is my real point, I suppose.
Just as he’s unlikely to rub his recent enemies’ noses in their defeat by calling himself a king, he’s not going to make your father’s position even more difficult by asking him to officially accept a hradani ambassador at his court.” Leeana’s eyes widened very briefly.
Then they narrowed again, even more briefly, before she nodded. “That does make sense,” she said after a moment, and Brandark wondered if the girl realized how completely her thoughtful tone demolished her pretense of having “accidentally” collided with Bahzell.
She stood there for a second or two, as if being certain she’d digested the information thoroughly, than shook herself and smiled at Bahzell again. — The stallions slowed their headlong pace as they spread out into battle formation, each making certain he had the space he needed to fight effectively, yet stayed close enough to his companions to cover one another’s flanks.
The herd stallion didn’t need to look back to check their positioning.
Unlike horses, coursers relied as much on training as instinct at times like this, and his stallions were a well-drilled, disciplined team.
They knew exactly where they were supposed to be, and he knew they did.
Besides, one of the things which made him herd stallion was the inborn ability to know the precise location of every member of his herd, and despite the instinct-driven fury pounding through him and the terrifying unnaturalness of the sudden, shrieking wind, he felt the confidence of the herd’s defenders.
And his own.
His was not the largest of the courser herds, by any stretch of the imagination, yet there were seventeen stallions behind him, prepared to trample any possible enemies into the Wind Plain’s mud in broken ruin. But then he threw up his head again, eyes flaring wide as that same ability to place the members of his herd shrieked in warning horror. Screaming whistles of anger and confusion rose behind him, audible even above the howling wind, as the rest of the herd tasted his confusion and revulsion through the intricately fused net of their minds.
It was impossible.
He couldn’t be sensing the members of his own herd who had remained behind—not as the threat beyond the barrier of the icy gale! Yet he did.
And he sensed something else with them, some transcendent horror.
It had no name, yet it rode them more cruelly than any spur or whip, for it was part of them.
Or they had become part of it. They were dead, he realized.
And yet they weren’t.
He reached out to them, despite his revulsion, but nothing answered.
The stallions and mares he had known, watched grow from foals, were no more, yet some splinter of them—some tortured, broken and defiled fragment—remained.
It was part of whatever hid behind the wind, sweeping down upon the rest of his herd. It was . . .
It was the diametric opposite of his own sense of the herd, for his was the sense of a leader, a shepherd and protector, but this was the sense of a predator.
It was as if the monstrous danger hidden in the hurricane had devoured those he had known and taken their herd sense, their existence as part of the corporate whole, to use as a hound master might use a human’s discarded clothing to give his hounds the scent of his prey. And then the icy clouds of frozen rain pellets parted, and the herd stallion faced a horror which daunted even his mighty heart. The plain before him was alive.
Not with grass, or trees, but with wolves.
A huge, seething sea of wolves.
Not one or two, or a dozen, but scores of them, all of them racing towards his herd in a deadly, profoundly unnatural silence. No wolf was foolish enough to attack a courser, and no pack of wolves was sufficiently insane to attack a herd of them.
They didn’t even take down foals who’d strayed, or the sick or the lame, because they’d learned over the centuries that the rest of the herd could and would hunt them down and trample them into ruin. But this onrushing comber of wolves was unlike anything any courser had ever seen, and that stench of long-ago death clung to them like a curse from an open grave.
Eyes blazed with a sickly, crawling green fire; green venom dripped from the fangs bared by their silent, savage snarls; and no wolf pack born of nature had ever been so vast.
The herd stallion shook off the momentary paralysis of that incredible sight, rallying the rest of the stallions, who had been just as stunned and shaken as he, and they charged to meet the threat. The herd stallion reared, bringing his hooves down like flails, and a sound came from the wolves at last—a shriek of hatred-cored agony as he smashed a wolf the size of a small cart pony into splintered bone and torn flesh.
His head darted down, and teeth like cleavers, despite his herbivorous diet, bit deep.
He caught the second wolf just behind its shoulders, crushing its spine, and gagged at the taste of something which was both dead and alive at once.
He snapped his head around, worrying it as a normal wolf might worry a rabbit, until even its unnatural vitality failed, and then threw it from him with a final flip of his head.
He sensed another wolf, flowing around him, coming from behind in the ancient hamstringing attack of its kind, and a rear hoof smashed out, catching it on its way in.
It flew away from him, dead or crippled—it mattered not which—and he trumpeted his war cry as pounding hooves and tearing teeth harvested his enemies. Yet there were too many of them.
No one of them, no two, or even three, could have been a threat to him.
But they came not in twos or threes—they came in dozens, all larger than any natural wolf, and all with that same uncanny, not-dead vitality.
However many he crippled, however many he killed—assuming that he truly was killing them—there were always more behind them.
They swept down on his stallions like a sea crashing against a cliff, but this sea was alive.
It knew to look for weaknesses and exploit them, and coursers needed space to fight effectively.
Even their closest formation offered openings wolves could wedge their way into, and the herd stallion could not avoid the fangs of them all. He heard one of his stallions scream in agony as a wolf got beneath him, fastening its teeth in the other courser’s belly.
Other wolves swarmed over the wounded stallion, ripping and tearing while their companion’s grim grip crippled and hampered him, and he screamed again as they dragged him down into the sea of teeth waiting to devour him while he shrieked and thrashed in his death agony. Other teeth scored the herd stallion’s right foreleg, just above the chestnut, and he screamed in anguish of his own.
It wasn’t just the white bone of fangs rending his flesh.
That green venom seared like fire, filling his veins with an ice-cold blaze of anguish.
He rose, exposing his own belly dangerously, and arched his spine to bring both forehooves smashing down on the wolf who’d bitten him.
He crushed it into tattered hide and broken bones, but that shattered body continued to twitch and jerk.
Even as he turned to another foe, the broken wolf continued to move, and its movements were becoming stronger, more purposeful.
Slow and clumsy compared to its original lethal speed, yet lurching its way back upright.
It staggered towards him, broken bone flowing back into wholeness, hide recovering muscle and sinew, and he lashed out again.
He smashed it yet again, and even as he did, another hurled itself through the air, springing up onto his back, despite his height, to bite viciously at his neck. His attacker got a mouthful of mane, and before it could try again, the stallion covering his right side leaned over the herd stallion’s withers.
Jaws like axes crunched down on the wolf, tearing it away . . .
And two more wolves seized the moment of the second stallion’s distraction to tear out his throat in a steaming geyser of blood. He went down, and the herd stallion smashed his killers, but it wasn’t enough.
The wolves paid an extortionate price—one no natural pack of wolves would ever have paid—for every courser they dragged down.
But it was a price these creatures were willing to pay, and the snarling tide of possessed wolves swept forward as inexorably as any glacier. He should have fled, not stood to fight, he thought as he turned two more wolves into bags of broken bones and a third opened another bleeding wound just above his left stifle.
But he hadn’t known then.
Hadn’t suspected the true nature of the threat he faced.
And because he hadn’t, he and all of the other stallions were doomed.
But he might still save the rest of the herd. The order flashed out from him even as he continued to kick and tear at the endless waves, and the herd obeyed.
Mares with foals turned and ran, while the childless mares formed a rearguard, and the remaining stallions prepared to cover their retreat. Not one of them tried to escape.
They stood their ground in a holocaust of blood and terror and death, building a breastwork of broken, crushed wolf bodies that died and yet refused to become—quite—dead.
They fought like hoofed demons to defend their mates and children, shrieking and thundering their rage until the inevitable moment when their own bodies joined the wreckage. The herd stallion was one of the last to die. He had become a thing of horror, a slashed and bleeding ruin of his beauty and grace.
Bone showed in the deepest wounds, and venom pulsed through his body on the broken stutter of his pulse.
The remaining wolves closed in upon him, and he made himself turn in a staggering heave to face them.
He dimly sensed still more of them sweeping past him, and even through his agony and exhaustion, he felt a fresh, dull horror as more of the “dead” lurched back to their feet and staggered grotesquely by him.
They were slow and clumsy, those wolfish revenants, but they joined the others of their cursed kind, flowing around him like a river flowing around a lump of stone, and a fresh and different horror choked him as he saw the missing members of his own herd loom out of the rain. They moved like puppets with tangled strings, following the wolves—with the wolves—and their eyes blazed with the same green sickness, and fiery green froth hung from their jaws.
They ignored him, moving past him with the wolves, and torment filled him as his fading herd sense felt the agonized death of the first of his childless mares.
The wolves he and the other stallions had “slain” were too crippled, too clumsy, despite their resurrection, to overtake the herd . . .
But their undamaged fellows were another matter entirely.
Sorrow and grief twisted him with the despairing knowledge that not even the fabled speed and endurance of the coursers would save many of the herd’s foals from the unnatural wave of death racing after them like the tide across a mud bank. The wolves he still faced came at him.
He had no idea how many of them there were.
It didn’t matter.
He brought a leaden forehoof down one last time, crushing one more wolf, crippling one more foe who would not murder one of his foals. And then they foamed over him in a final wave of rending, tearing agony, and there was only darkness. Chapter Four — “I don’t think that’s exactly fair,” Kaeritha said with a quick frown. “And I’m certain that’s not how he thinks of it.” “No?” Leeana gazed at her for several seconds, then gave her head a little toss that twitched her long, thick braid of damp golden-red hair. “Maybe he doesn’t, but that doesn’t really change anything, Dame Kaeritha.
Do you have any idea how many people want him to produce a real heir?” She grimaced. “The entire King’s Council certainly goes on at him enough about it whenever he attends!” “Not the entire Council, I’m sure,” Kaeritha objected, her eyes widening slightly as she sensed the true depth of bitterness Leeana’s normally cheerful demeanor concealed. “Oh, no,” Leeana agreed. “Only the ones who don’t have sons they think are just the right age to marry off to the heir to Balthar and the West Riding.
Or don’t think they’re still young enough for the job themselves—they can hardly wait to get their greasy little paws on me.” She grimaced in disgust. “All the rest of them, though, use it as an excuse to go on at him, gnawing away at his power base like a pack of mongrels snarling at a leashed wolfhound.” “Is it really that bad?” Kaeritha asked, and Leeana looked surprised by the question. “I may be a champion of Tomanāk, Leeana,” Kaeritha said wryly, “but I’m also an Axewoman, not a Sothōii.
Tomanāk!” She laughed. “As far as that goes, I’m only even an Axewoman by adoption.
I was born a peasant in Moretz! So I may be intellectually familiar with the sorts of machinations that go on amongst great nobles, but I don’t have that much first-hand experience with them.” Leeana appeared to have a little difficulty with the idea that a belted knight—and a champion of Tomanāk, into the bargain—could be that ignorant of things which were so much a part of her own life.
And she also seemed surprised that Kaeritha seemed genuinely interested in her opinion. “Well,” she said slowly, in the voice of one manifestly attempting to be as fair-minded as possible, “it probably does seem even worse to me than it actually is, but it’s bad enough.
You do know how Sothōii inheritance laws work, don’t you?” “That much I have down, in general terms, at least,” Kaeritha assured her. “Then you know that while I can’t legally inherit Father’s titles and lands myself, they’ll pass through me as heir conveyant to my own children? Assuming he doesn’t produce a son after all, of course.” Kaeritha nodded, and Leeana shrugged. “Since our enlightened customs and traditions won’t permit a woman to inherit in her own right, whatever fortunate man wins my hand in matrimony will become my ‘regent.’ He’ll govern Balthar and hold the wardenship of the West Riding ‘in my name,’ until our firstborn son inherits father’s titles and lands.
And, of course, in the most unfortunate case that I might produce only daughters, he—or the husband of my eldest daughter—would continue to hold the wardenship until one of them produced a son.” The irony in her soprano voice was withering, especially coming from one so young, Kaeritha thought. “Because of that,” Leeana continued, “two thirds of the Council want Father to go ahead and set Mother aside to produce a good, strong, male heir.
Some of them say it’s his duty to the bloodline, and others argue that a matrimonial regency always creates the possibility of a succession crisis.
Some of them may even be sincere, but most of them know perfectly well he won’t do it.
They see it all as a sword to use against him, something he has to use up political capital fighting off.
The last thing he needs, especially now, is to give his enemies any more weapons to use against him! But the ones who are sincere may be even worse, because the real reason they want him to produce a male heir is that none of them like to think about the possibility that such a plum might fall into the hands of one of their rivals.
And the third of the Council who don’t want him to set Mother aside probably hope they’re the ones who will catch the plum.” Kaeritha nodded slowly, gazing into the younger woman’s dark green eyes.
Tellian Bowmaster’s marriage eighteen years before to Hanatha Whitesaddle had not simply united the Bowmasters of Balthar with the Whitesaddles of Windpeak.
It had also been a love match, not just a political alliance between two powerful families.
That had been obvious to anyone who’d ever laid eyes on them. And if it hadn’t been, the fact that Tellian had furiously rejected any suggestion that he set Hanatha aside after the riding accident which had left the baroness with one crippled leg and cost her her fertility would have made it so.
But that decision on his part did carry a heavy price for their only child. “And how does the plum feel about being caught?” Kaeritha asked softly. “The plum?” Leeana gazed back into Kaeritha’s midnight-blue eyes for several silent seconds, and her voice was even softer than Kaeritha’s when she finally replied. “The plum would sell her soul to be anywhere else in the world,” she said. The two of them looked at each other, then Leeana shook herself, bobbed a quick half-bow, and turned abruptly away.
She walked down the passage with quick, hard strides, her spine pikestaff-straight, and Kaeritha watched her go.
She wondered if Leeana had actually intended to reveal the true depth of her feelings.
And if the girl had ever revealed them that frankly to anyone else. She frowned in troubled thought, then shook herself and turned back to the window as fresh thunder grumbled overhead.
Her heart went out to the girl—and to her parents, for that matter—but that wasn’t what had brought her to the Wind Plain, and it was past time she got on with what had brought her here.
She gazed out the window a few moments longer, inhaled one more deep breath of rain from her relatively dry perch, and then turned away and walked briskly towards the tower’s spiral stair. * * * The library was quiet, the silence broken only by the ticking of the grandfather clock in one corner and the soft, seething crackle of the fire on the hearth.
There was no other sound, yet Bahzell looked up an instant before the library door opened.
Baron Tellian, sitting across the gaming table from him looked up in turn, and then shook his head as the door swung wide and Kaeritha stepped through it. “I wish you two would stop doing that,” he complained. “And just what is it the two of us are after doing?” Bahzell inquired genially. “You know perfectly well what,” Tellian replied, using the black pawn he’d just picked up from the chessboard to wave at Kaeritha, still standing in the doorway and smiling at him. “That.” He shook his head and snorted. “You could at least pretend you have to wait until the other one knocks, like normal people!” “With all due respect, Milord,” Brandark sat in a window seat to take advantage of the gray, rainy-afternoon light coming in through it and spoke without ever looking up from the book in his lap, “I don’t believe anyone’s ever been foolish enough to suggest that there was anything ‘normal’ about either of them.” “But they could at least try,” Tellian objected. “Damn it, it’s uncanny . . .
And it worries my men.
Phrobus! It worries me, sometimes!” “I apologize, Milord,” Kaeritha said with a small smile. “It’s not really anything we do, you know.
It just . . .
Happens.” “Aye,” Bahzell agreed, and the smile he gave the baron was much broader than hers had been. “And come to that, I’ve not heard yet that champions of Tomanāk weren’t supposed to be after being ‘uncanny.’ ” “That’s because they are,” Brandark said in a slightly more serious tone, looking up from his book at last and cocking his foxlike ears. “Uncanny, that is.
And the truth is, Milord,” he went on as Tellian turned his head to look at him, “that it’s so unusual to have two champions as houseguests at the same time that very few people have ever had the opportunity to watch them being uncanny together.” Tellian considered that for a few seconds, then nodded. “You have a point,” he conceded. “But then, everything about the current situation is on the unusual side, isn’t it?” “It is that.” Heartfelt agreement rumbled in Bahzell’s deep voice as he leaned back in his chair—specially built by Tellian’s master woodworker to Bahzell’s size and weight—and gazed across the neat ranks of chessmen at the human host who was technically his prisoner. “And I hope you won’t be taking this wrongly, Baron, but it’s in my mind that those of your folk who’d sooner see my head on a pike are after getting a mite more . . .
Vocal about it.” “You’re talking about those idiots Kaeritha trounced at the temple the other day?” Tellian asked, and Bahzell nodded. “Those, and those like them who’re after being a bit more discreet, as you might be saying,” he agreed a trifle grimly. “And I’m not so easy in my mind about those problems biting Lord Festian’s backside, either.” Tellian raised an eyebrow, and Bahzell shrugged. “I’ve no doubt there’s always enough political infighting to be going around amongst you Sothōii—there certainly is amongst any other lot of noblemen I’ve ever heard aught about! But I’m thinking that there’s more than a few getting behind to push where concern over your taste in houseguests is concerned.” “Of course there are,” Tellian agreed. “Surely you didn’t expect anything else to happen?” “Of course not,” Bahzell said. “Not that that’s after making it any more pleasant—or keeping my shoulder blades from itching whenever daggers are about—now that it’s here.” “On the other hand,” Kaeritha observed mildly, “nobody ever said being a champion of Tomanāk would be an endless pleasure jaunt, either.
Or, at least, no one ever said so to me, anyway.” “Nor to me,” Bahzell admitted, and his ears twitched in wry amusement as he recalled the conversation in which the god of war had recruited one Bahzell Bahnakson as the first hradani champion of any god of Light in the past twelve millennia. “Pleasure jaunt” was one phrase which had never passed Tomanāk’s lips. “I can well believe that.” Tellian shook his head. “It’s bad enough being a simple baron without having a god looking over my shoulder all the time!” “That’s as may be,” Bahzell said, “but I’m thinking it wasn’t all that ‘simple’ for you, either, when we ran up against each other in the Gullet.” — “Now remember, Soumeta.
We need access to Herian and his outlets.” “I understand that, Theretha.” “Well, if things are as bad as Jolhanna says they are, then we’ve got to convince Master Manuar to approve our entry.
And to enforce the charter’s requirements that we be given fair access and the full protection of the law while we’re here.” “Theretha,” Soumeta said with exaggerated patience, “I was there when Mayor Yalith discussed the entire trip with you.
I know why we’re here, all right?” Theretha Maglahnfressa bit her tongue.
She knew it was only her own anxiety which made her so insistent.
But still— “Maybe I should come along,” she said nervously. “I have met Master Manuar before.
Maybe I could—” “Theretha—!” Soumeta began, then visibly made herself stop and draw a deep breath. “Look,” she said, in the tone of someone hanging onto her own composure with both hands, “the Mayor discussed all of this with us before she sent us out here.
She and the Town Council made it abundantly clear that the situation’s gotten so bad that it’s time we took an official position.
And I, Theretha, as an officer in the City Guard, have official standing which you do not.
As such, I will make the initial contact with the market master, and you won’t.
And I promise that I won’t snatch him across the desk and cut his throat, no matter how he provokes me.” Theretha started to say something more, then closed her mouth with an almost audible snap as Soumeta glared at her.
The older woman wasn’t particularly fond of men, especially those in positions of power, in the first place, and her frustration was only too apparent.
But Theretha never doubted that it—like the anger which accompanied it—was directed at the situation which had prompted this trip in the first place, and not at her. Which didn’t make her feel a whole lot better as she nodded acceptance of Soumeta’s orders. “Good,” Soumeta growled, and Theretha stood huddled in her cloak, tense and unhappy beside the cart, and watched Soumeta stalk into the market master’s office.
A couple of townsfolk saw Soumeta coming and got out of her way—promptly.
Unlike Theretha, Soumeta wore the war maids’ chari and yathu with no cloak or poncho, despite the drizzly chill.
She also wore a grimly determined expression . . .
Along with her swords, garrotte, and bandolier of throwing stars.
No one was going to mistake her for anything but what she was—a dangerous individual in an unhappy mood—and Theretha wished she could convince herself that that was a good thing. Her powers of self-persuasion didn’t seem to be up to the task, and she didn’t much care for the older war maid’s expression herself, either.
Nor did the fact that Soumeta had been nominated for this by Maretha Keralinfressa, the leader of the Council faction most in favor of taking a hard line with Trisu of Lorham, make her feel any better.
She knew Mayor Yalith herself had wanted to be sure Kalatha sent someone who would stand up to any attempt at intimidation, but Theretha was worried by the politics of the choice.
She couldn’t escape the feeling that the real reason Yalith had put Soumeta in charge had been to blunt the increasingly vocal criticism of her own, less confrontational policies by Maretha’s faction.
Theretha was firmly in agreement with the mayor in this instance, and it worried her that Soumeta wasn’t.
Then again, she knew she’d never liked any sort of confrontation, whether it was physical or purely verbal, so perhaps she was overreacting. She folded her delicate, skilled hands under the cloak, rubbing them lightly together for warmth.
The spring day had been chilly enough at noon, with the sun directly overhead.
Now that late afternoon was shading into evening and the omnipresent clouds of this torrential spring were blowing up once again out of the west, Theretha’s breath was beginning to steam.
It was going to be a wretched night if they wound up having to sleep under the thin protection of the cart’s canvas cover, she thought miserably, and from Soumeta’s combative expression, it was likely enough that that was precisely what they were going to do. Not for the first time, Theretha wished she’d shown at least some aptitude for the weapons and self-defense training every war maid candidate was required to undergo.
Unfortunately, she hadn’t.
Her instructors had done their best, but Theretha was a mouse at heart, not a direcat.
As Darhanna, a senior instructor had put it, Theretha was one of those people whose best primary defense was to be invisible, because she simply couldn’t bring herself to try to actually hurt someone, even in self-defense.
Darhanna had been as kind as she could about it, and gotten her through the mandatory training somehow, but it had been only too obvious at the end of it that she regarded Theretha as someone who should never be allowed out without a keeper.
Like Soumeta, she supposed. Actually, Theretha agreed with Darhanna.
There were times when she still couldn’t believe she’d ever found the courage to run away to the war maids in the first place, despite everything her stepfather had done to her.
She probably wouldn’t have managed it even then, if her younger brother Barthon hadn’t agreed to—insisted that she let him, actually—escort her to Kalatha, the nearest war maid free-town.
Kalatha’s mayor at the time had been deeply surprised to find a male member of her family actively abetting her in her flight.
And surprise had turned into astonishment when the mayor discovered that Theretha’s escape to the war maids had been Barthon’s idea in the first place.
In fact, the mayor had been suspicious, and initially disinclined to accept Theretha, as if she’d feared that Barthon was part of some elaborate trap or scheme to discredit the war maids.
But then the mayor had received the report from Kalatha’s senior physician on Theretha’s condition. It was the evidence of the botched, two-day-old miscarriage which had turned the mayor’s suspicious resistance into angry acceptance.
To her credit, the mayor hadn’t even suggested that it might be Barthon’s place to “avenge” Theretha.
No doubt a good part of that restraint stemmed from the fact that war maids, like their patron Lillinara, believed it was a woman’s own responsibility to seek redress for wrongs done to her.
But the horrible, crippling burns Barthon had suffered in the furnace explosion which had killed their father would have prevented him from taking any sort of personal, direct action against their stepfather, and the mayor had recognized that.
In fact, she’d offered Barthon a place in Kalatha, and Theretha still wished her brother had accepted the offer. Despite the urging of the mayor and other older war maids, Theretha had steadfastly resisted the suggestion that she go to the courts in an effort to punish her stepfather.
The odds against her being believed by the court in her home town were formidable.
Those who knew only his public face thought her stepfather was an honest businessman, devoted to his deceased wife’s family.
They probably thought he liked puppies and small kittens, too, she thought grimly, and even if the magistrate had chosen to believe her, the chance that someone who could call on so many character witnesses—most of whom would actually believe what they were saying—would suffer any significant penalty would have been slight.
As far as Theretha was concerned, she had better things to do with her life than to reopen all the old wounds in a futile effort to see her victimizer punished.
She sometimes wondered if that belief was a reflection of the mouselike tendencies which had made any possibility of her becoming a warrior like Soumeta laughable. Fortunately, she’d completed most of her apprenticeship before her father’s death, and until her mother died, she’d insisted that Theretha’s stepfather continue her training.
He’d done so only grudgingly, but until his wife’s death, he’d really had no choice, since she’d owned both the workshop and the store.
But after Theretha’s mother died, he’d taken gloating delight in refusing to sign her journeyman’s certificate, no doubt because he’d seen that refusal as a means to deprive her of any independent livelihood and trap her in his power. The war maids didn’t much concern themselves with what sorts of certificates a woman might have received—or not received—before becoming a war maid.
They were more concerned with what she could actually do, and the glassblower assigned to test Theretha had realized almost instantly what a treasure she represented.
At sixteen and a half, Theretha had already possessed the skills her raw talent required to draw both utility and dazzling beauty from the clear, incandescent magic of molten sand.
Now, ten years later, she was an acknowledged mistress of her craft, her work sought out and prized by wealthy commoners and aristocrats alike throughout most of the Kingdom of the Sothōii.
Her pieces and name were even known to a select few collectors in the Empire of the Axe, and they commanded substantial prices.
Very few of the connoisseurs who purchased them for prices Theretha sometimes had trouble believing were real, even now, realized she was a war maid, although it was unlikely many of them would have cared, even if they had. She accepted an increasing number of commissions these days, but she’d never forgotten her father’s admonition.
Beauty was to the soul as water was to a fish, but it was the more mundane work of a glassblower’s hands, dedicated to the day-to-day sustenance of others, that was his true reason for being.
And so Theretha insisted—with the stubborn ferocity of a mouse who had discovered how to become a direcat in this one aspect of her life—upon keeping her hand turned to the merely useful, as well.
The glassware, like the pharmacist’s bottles and the spice seller’s jars, which did nothing at all . . .
Except save lives or help someone else earn an honest living. Or like the glassware in the cart she and Soumeta had brought to Thalar. She hadn’t really wanted to make the journey—-especially not now, when everything seemed so . . .
Unsettled and difficult.
For that matter, Mayor Yalith clearly had very mixed feelings about it.
In a way, Theretha was the “kid sister” of every war maid in Kalatha, and all of them were intensely protective of her.
Probably because they realized she was completely unsuited to protect herself from anything more dangerous than a crazed chipmunk, she thought. But she’d decided that she didn’t have a choice, and then managed to convince Yalith to see it her way.
The bulk of the output from Theretha’s workshop and her six employees consisted not of her beautiful art pieces, but of those everyday, practical items.
That was what earned the routine revenues Kalatha needed and paid the salaries of the people who worked for her.
It was essential to maintain the outlet through which those wares might be sold. Thalar wasn’t a very large or especially wealthy town, but it was the largest and wealthiest in the holding of Lorham.
More to the point, it had the biggest, most active market, and Theretha had established what she’d thought were good relationships with the merchants who distributed her more mundane products.
Especially with Herian Axemaster, who handled over half of all the glassware and pottery which moved through Lorham.
Herian was also a factor for Clan Harkanath, the powerful Dwarvenhame trading house.
But those relationships seemed to have suffered serious damage, along with every other aspect of Kalatha’s relations with Lord Trisu and all of his subjects.
If she wanted to maintain her access to the Thalar market, and through it, to the world beyond, she’d decided, she had to come along and see what she could do to repair them And, as she had somewhat delicately suggested to the mayor, the fact that her Thalar contacts also knew about her art pieces, and that Herian had actually handled the sale of several of them for her, ought to give her a bit more clout than she might have had otherwise. Unfortunately . . . Theretha bit her lip as she looked in through the open door of the market master’s office and saw Soumeta leaning over Master Manuar’s desk.
The lamps were already lit in anticipation of the rapidly oncoming evening, and Soumeta’s short blond hair gleamed in their mellow light as she stabbed an angry index finger repeatedly onto the desk’s top.
It was impossible for Theretha to hear anything from here, but from Soumeta’s flushed face and Manuar’s thunderous expression she strongly suspected that the two of them were shouting at one another. — “I won’t say there isn’t an element of the pot and kettle in that pithy description, Kerry,” Brandark said after a moment. “But there’s a lot of accuracy in it, too.
The Sothōii take a tremendous amount of pride in how ‘traditional’ they are, you know.
Their very name—’Sothōii’—is derived from the Old Kontovaran word sothofranos, which translates roughly as ‘sons of the fathers.’ According to their traditions, they’re descended from the highest nobility of the Empire of Ottovar, and they’ve grown pretty fanatical about protecting that line of descent—intellectually, as well as physically—over the last twelve centuries or so.” “Are they really?” Kaeritha asked. “Descended from the old Ottovarn nobility, that is?” “That’s hard to say,” Brandark said with a shrug. “It’s certainly possible.
But the significant point is that they think they are, and that pride in their ancestry is part of what produces those conservatives Bahzell and Gharnal were just talking about.
And the very existence of the war maids is an affront to their view of the way their entire society—or the rest of the world, for that -matter—is supposed to work.
In fact, the war maids wouldn’t exist at all if the Crown hadn’t specifically guaranteed their legal rights.
Unfortunately—and I suspect this is what Bahzell was getting at—calling that royal guarantee ‘a charter’ is more of a convenient shorthand than an accurate description.” Kaeritha cocked an eyebrow, and he shrugged. “It’s actually more of a bundle of separate charters and decrees dealing with specific instances than some sort of neat, unified legal document, Kerry.
According to what I’ve learned so far, the original proclamation legitimizing the war maids was unfortunately vague on several key points.
Over the next century or so, additional proclamations intended to clarify some of the obscurity, and even an occasional judge’s opinion, were bundled together, and the whole mishmash is what they fondly call their ‘charter.’ I haven’t actually looked at it, you understand, but I’m familiar enough with the same sort of thing among the hradani.
When something just sort of grows up the way the war maids’ ‘charter’ has, there’s usually a substantial degree of variation between the terms of its constituent documents.
And that means there’s an enormous scope for ambiguities and misunderstandings . . .
Especially when the people whose rights those decrees are supposed to stipulate aren’t very popular with their neighbors.” “You have a positive gift for understatement,” Kaeritha sighed, and shook her head. “Axeman law is much more codified and uniform than what you’re describing, but I’ve seen more than enough of this kind of melt-it-all-together mess of precedent, statute, and common law even there.” She sighed again. “Just what rights do the war maids have? In general terms, I mean, if there’s that much variation from grant to grant.” “Basically,” Brandark replied, “they have the right to determine how they want to live their own lives, free of traditional Sothōii familial and social obligations.” The Bloody Sword scholar tipped back in his chair, folded his arms, and frowned thoughtfully. “Although they’re uniformly referred to as ‘war maids,’ most of them aren’t, really.” Kaeritha raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged. “Virtually every legal right up here on the Wind Plain is associated in one way or another with the holding of land and the reciprocal obligation of service to the Crown, Kaeritha, and the war maids are no exception.
As part of King Gartha’s original proclamation, their free-towns are obligated to provide military forces to the Crown.
In my more cynical moments, I think Gartha included that obligation as a deliberate attempt to effectively nullify the charter while pacifying the women who’d demanded it, since it’s hard for me to conceive of any Sothōii king who could honestly believe a batch of women could provide an effective military force.” “If that was after being the case, then he was in for a nasty surprise,” Gharnal put in, and Brandark chuckled. “Oh, he was that!” he agreed. “And in my less cynical moments, I’m inclined to think Gartha included the obligation only because he had to.
Given how much of the current crop of Sothōii nobles is hostile to the war maids, the opposition to authorizing their existence in the first place must have been enormous, and the great nobles of Gartha’s day were far more powerful, in relation to the Crown, than they are today.
Which means his Council probably could have mustered the support to block the initial charter without that provision.
For that matter, the measure’s opponents would have been the ones most inclined to believe that requiring military service out of a bunch of frail, timid women would be an effective, underhanded way of negating Gartha’s intentions without coming out in open opposition. “At any rate, only about a quarter of all ‘war maids’ are actually warriors.
Their own laws and traditions require all of them to have at least rudimentary training in self-defense, but most of them follow other professions.
Some of them are farmers or, like most Sothōii, horse breeders.
But more of them are shopkeepers, blacksmiths, -potters, physicians, glassmakers, even lawyers—the sorts of tradesmen and craftsmen who populate most free-towns or cities up here.
And the purpose of their charter is to ensure that they have the same legal rights and protections, despite the fact that they’re women, that men in the same professions would enjoy.” “Are they all women?” “Well,” Brandark said dryly, “the real war maids are.
But if what you’re actually asking is whether or not war maid society is composed solely of women, the answer is no.
The fact that a woman chooses to live her own life doesn’t necessarily mean she hates all men.
Of course, many of them become war maids because they aren’t very fond of men, and quite a few of them end up partnering with other women.
Not a practice likely to endear them to Sothōii men who already think the entire notion of women making decisions for themselves is unnatural.
But it would be a serious mistake to assume that any woman who chooses to become—or, for that matter, is born—a war maid isn’t going to fall in love with a man and choose to spend her life with him on her own terms.
Or at least to dally with one on occasion.
And war maid mothers do tend to produce male children from time to time, just like any other mothers.
Of course, those two facts lead to some of the thornier ‘ambiguities’ I mentioned earlier.” “Why?” Kaeritha leaned forward, elbows on the table, her expression intent, while she cradled her wineglass in her hands, and Bahzell hid a smile.
He’d seen exactly that same hunting-hawk expression when she encountered a new combat technique. “There’s always been some question as to whether or not the war maids’ charter automatically extends to their male children,” Brandark explained. “Or, for that matter, to their female children, in the eyes of some of the true reactionaries.
When a woman chooses to become a war maid, her familial duties and inheritance obligations are legally severed.
Even your true sticks-in-the-mud have been forced to admit that.
But a fair number of nobles continue to assert that the legal severance applies only to her—that whatever line of inheritance or obligation would have passed through her to her children is unimpaired.
For the most part, the courts haven’t agreed with that view, but enough have to mean it’s still something of a gray area.
I suppose it’s fortunate most ‘first-generation’ war maids come from commoner stock, or at most from the minor nobility—the squirearchy, you might call them.
Or maybe it isn’t.
If the higher nobility had been forced to come to grips with the question, the Crown Courts would have been driven to make a definitive ruling on the disputed points years ago. “At any rate, the exact question of the legal status of war maids’ children is still up in the air, at least to some extent.
And so is the question of their marriages.
Their more diehard opponents argue that since their precious charter severs all familial obligations, it precludes the creation of new ones, which means no war maid marriage has any legal validity in their eyes.
And there really is some question, I understand, in this instance.
I doubt very much that Gartha had any intention of precluding the possibility of war maid marriages, but Baron Tellian’s senior magistrate tells me some of the controlling language is less precise than it ought to be.
According to him, everyone knows it’s a matter of technicalities and reading the letter of the law, not its spirit, but apparently the problems do exist.
And, to be perfectly honest, from what he said—and a couple of things he didn’t say—I think the war maids have done their own bit to keep the waters muddied.” “Why would they do that?” Kaeritha asked. “Unless . . .
The children.” “Exactly.
If war maid marriages have no legal standing, then every child of a war maid is technically illegitimate.” “Which would take them out of the line of inheritance, unless there were no legitimate heirs at all,” Kaeritha said with a nod of understanding, but her expression was troubled. “I can follow the logic,” she continued after a moment, “but it seems awfully shortsighted of them.
Or maybe like the triumph of expedience.
It may prevent their children from being yanked away from them and drawn into a system they wanted out of, but it also prevents them from extending the legal protections of their own families to those same children.” “Yes, it does,” Brandark agreed. “On the other hand, their own courts and judges don’t see it that way, and for the most part, the charters which create their free-towns extend the jurisdiction of their judges to all of the citizens of those towns.
The problem comes with legal cases which cross the boundaries between the war maids’ jurisdiction and those of more traditional Sothōii nobles.” “Tomanāk,” Kaeritha sighed. “What a mess!” “Well, it isn’t after being just the tidiest situation in the world,” Bahzell agreed. “Still and all, it’s one the Sothōii have been working at for two or three centuries now.
There’s those as have some mighty sharp axes to grind, but for the most part, they’ve learned how to be getting on with one another.” ” ‘For the most part’ still leaves a lot of room for potential trouble, though,” Kaeritha pointed out. “And somehow, I don’t think He’d be sending me off to deal with a crop of Sothōii who were ‘getting on with one another.’ Do you?” “Well, as to that,” Bahzell replied with a crooked smile, “no.” — “Well, Sir Yarran,” he said, his eyes refocusing on the knight. “I can see why Lord Festian sent you.
On several levels.” He smiled under his brushy mustache as Yarran’s eyebrows quirked. “He had to send someone to explain what sort of help he needs, and why,” the baron continued. “And since he did, he showed excellent judgment in sending someone who understands the situation as well as you obviously do.
I must confess that I already knew some of what you’ve told me, but I hadn’t realized the whole of it.
I’m going to require a day or two to think about it before I decide how best to help Lord Warden Festian deal with it.
I assure you, however, that it will be dealt with.” There was a world of determination in his choice of verbs, and Bahzell felt himself nodding in approval. “In the meantime,” Tellian said, slapping the arms of his chair and then thrusting himself up out of it, “consider yourself my honored guest, Sir Yarran.
I’m very pleased to have you here, and I’ll ask Trianal to escort you to the suite Kalan has assigned to you.
Once you’ve had a chance to settle in, I think it would be an excellent idea for you to spend some time speaking with my own senior officers.
I’d be obliged if you—and you, Trianal—” he glanced at his nephew “would leave Baron Cassan out of it, but feel free to share any of your other information or conclusions with them, including your thoughts about Dathian and Lord Saratic.” He smiled thinly. “Most of my people are smart enough to figure out who’d have to be behind Saratic, so there’s no need to be any more specific about it.
And unlike some nobles, I’ve discovered that keeping the people who are supposed to help you handle any wars or other little unpleasantnesses which come your way as fully informed as possible is a good idea.
At least they’re more likely to keep you from stepping on your . . .
Sword that way.” Chapter Eleven “So, Prince Bahzell,” a youthful voice said, “can I pick your brains for Father’s secrets?” Bahzell turned from where he’d stood on Hill Guard’s curtain wall, leaning on the battlements while he stared out across the endless grasslands of the Wind Plain.
The morning’s overcast had blown away on the winds of noon, and the afternoon sun was settling towards a western horizon of such crystalline blue beauty that it hurt the eyes.
The deep, dark green of the reborn grasslands, nourished by the long, soaking rains, spread out below him like the visible proof of the Wind Plain’s short-seasoned fertility.
The wind blowing out of the northwest was still on the cool side of warm, but Bahzell enjoyed its slight bite as he luxuriated in an absence of raindrops. Leeana Bowmaster stood behind him, in one of the simple yet elegant gowns her mother had lately begun to insist she wear.
The wind molded the fabric to her long legs, and strands of hair which had escaped her braid danced about her face, flickering like gilded serpents in the sunlight.
With her green eyes sparkling with mischievous deviltry, she looked even cuter than usual, Bahzell told himself, steadfastly ignoring the fact that “cute” might not be precisely the correct adjective. “I’m not thinking as how my poor brain is after being all that worth picking, Milady,” he told her with a smile. “Don’t be silly, Milord Prince.” She walked across to stand beside him, gazing out over the same green vista. “Given how hard you work at it, you really don’t do a very good job of hiding your intelligence.” Bahzell looked at her profile sidelong.
That was coming to grips with a vengeance, he thought. “It’s not so very bad a thing if those as don’t much like you spend their time thinking about how much brighter than you they’re after being,” he said after a moment. “I’ll not claim to be a genius, at the best of times, Milady.
Yet for all that, it may be I’m not quite the idiot my old da’s been known to call me.” “And I imagine it helps that quite a few people are bigoted enough to listen to the way you Horse Stealers talk rather than to what it is you say,” Leeana mused. “Aye, no doubt it does,” Bahzell agreed. “If it comes to that, there’s plenty of those as are ready to assume any hradani, regardless of how it might be he talks, must be a barbarian, and stupid to boot.” He gave her a slow smile. “Well, I’m thinking those as call my folk barbarians aren’t far wrong, when all’s said.
But those as think all barbarians are after being stupid . . .” He shrugged, twitching his ears gently, and she laughed delightedly.
It was a lovely sound, like bits of crystal music blown on the wind. “I can see where that would be a mistake,” she agreed. “Especially now that you’ve demonstrated how smoothly you can avoid answering a simple question.” “Avoid, Milady?” he asked innocently. “What question would that have been?” “The one about Father’s secrets,” she said patiently. “Ah, that question!” He nodded. “Well, do you know, Milady, I don’t really think as how it’s my place to be saying aught about the Baron’s confidences.” She opened her mouth, but he held up his right hand, index finger extended. “Oh, I was there when he was after challenging you,” he agreed. “But I’m thinking as how he wanted you to be using your regular sources, not bringing in new ones.” “You’re probably right,” she said after considering it briefly. “On the other hand, any ‘regular source’ was a new one, once.” She shrugged fetchingly. “I have to recruit them at some point, you know.” Bahzell laughed out loud, and she grinned impudently up at him. “You’re after reminding me of my sister Marglyth,” he told her. “Maybe with a bit of Sharkah thrown in for spice.
Not a scruple amongst the three of you.” “I do so have scruples!” she told him, elevating her nose with a disdainful sniff. “I just don’t let them get in the way of business.” ” ‘Business,’ is it?” Bahzell considered her thoughtfully. “I’m hoping you won’t take this wrongly, Milady, but are you so very sure as how this is the sort of ‘business’ as you should be wanting to learn?” “It’s the only one I can learn,” she said, and the levity had ebbed from her voice.
She continued to look up at him, but now those huge, dark green eyes were serious, almost somber. “It’s not as if anyone is going to let me train to be a knight, even if that were what I wanted to do—which it isn’t.
I’m only a daughter, after all.
Most people figure a daughter’s only job is to become someone’s wife and produce babies.
Preferably male ones.” There was a pronounced bite in her tone, and Bahzell felt a stir of sympathy. — Steam rose gently from the stew pot. More steam rose from the far from occasional drops of rain which found their way through the open side of the lean-to Kaeritha had erected to protect her cooking fire.
Centuries of Sothōii had planted trees along the lines of their roads, mainly to provide windbreaks, but also for the purpose to which Kaeritha had put this thick patch of trees.
Although it was still spring, the branches above her were densely clothed in fresh, green leaves, which offered at least some protection to her campsite.
And, of course, there was firewood in plenty, even if it was a bit on the damp side. The blanket-covered packhorse was picketed beside the brawling, rain-fed stream at the foot of the slight rise on which she had encamped.
Cloudy wasn’t picketed at all—the idea that she might require picketing would have been a mortal insult to any Sothōii warhorse—but she’d ambled over and parked herself on the up-wind side of the fire.
Kaeritha wasn’t sure whether that was a helpful attempt to shield the fire from the rainy wind or an effort to get close enough to soak up what warmth the crackling flames could provide.
Not that she was about to object in either case. She stirred the stew again, then lifted the spoon and sampled it.
It was hot, and she knew it was going to be filling, but she was going to miss Brandark’s deft hand at the cook fire, and the mere thought of Tala’s cooking was enough to bring a glum tear to her eye. She grimaced and sat back on her heels under the cover of the open-fronted tent she’d positioned with the eye of hard-won experience.
The lean-to she’d constructed, and a rising swell of ground, served as reflectors to bounce the fire’s warmth back into her tent, and only a little of the smoke eddied in along with it.
Given the general soddenness of the Wind Plain, she was as comfortable—and as close to dry—as she was likely to get. Which wasn’t saying a great deal. She got up and began moving additional firewood under the crude lean-to, where it would be at least mostly out of the rain and the cook fire could begin drying it out.
She was just about finished when Cloudy suddenly raised her head.
The mare’s ears came up, pointed forward, and she turned to face back towards the road. Kaeritha reached up under her poncho and unbuttoned the straps across the quillons of her short swords, then turned casually in the same direction. Cloudy’s hearing was considerably more acute than Kaeritha’s.
Kaeritha knew that, yet how even the mare could have heard anything through the steady drip and patter of rain surpassed her understanding.
For a moment, she thought perhaps Cloudy hadn’t heard anything, but then she saw the rider emerging ghost-like from the rainy, misty evening gloom and knew the mare hadn’t been imagining things after all. Kaeritha stood silently, watching the newcomer and waiting.
The Kingdom of the Sothōii was, by and large, peaceful and law-abiding . . .
It hadn’t always been so, though, and there were still occasional brigands or outlaws, despite the ruthless justice nobles like Tellian dealt out to any they caught up with.
Such predators would be likely to think of a lone traveler as easy prey, especially if they knew that traveler was a woman . . .
And didn’t know she was one of Tomanāk’s champions.
As far as Kaeritha could tell, there was only one rider out there, but there might be more, and she maintained a prudent watchfulness as the other slowly approached her fire. The possibility that the stranger might be a brigand declined as Kaeritha got a better look at his mount’s gait.
It was too dim and rainy to make out color or markings, but from the way it moved, that horse was almost as good as Cloudy.
No prudent horse thief would dare to keep such a readily recognizable and remarked animal for himself, which suggested this fellow wasn’t one . . .
But didn’t bring her any closer to being able to guess what he was doing out here in the rain with night coming on. “Hello, the fire!” a soprano voice called, and Kaeritha closed her eyes as she heard it. “Why me?” she asked. “Why is it always me?” The cloudy night vouchsafed no reply, and she sighed and opened her eyes again. “Hello, yourself, Leeana,” she called back. “I suppose you might as well come on in and make yourself comfortable.” * * * The Lady Leeana Glorana Syliveste Bowmaster, heir conveyant of Balthar, the West Riding, and at least a dozen other major and minor fiefs, had mud on her face.
Her red-gold braid was a thick, sodden serpent, hanging limp down her back, and every line of her body showed her weariness as she sat cross-legged across the fire from Kaeritha and mopped up the last bit of stew in her bowl with a crust of bread.
She popped it into her mouth, chewed, and swallowed contentedly. “You must have been hungry,” Kaeritha observed.
Leeana looked at her questioningly, and she shrugged. “I’ve eaten my own cooking too often to cherish any illusions about my culinary talent, Leeana.” “I thought it was quite good, actually, Dame Kaeritha,” Leeana said politely, and Kaeritha snorted. “Flattering the cook isn’t going to do you any good, girl,” she replied. “Given that you look more like a half-starved, half-drowned, mud-spattered rat then the heir of one of the Kingdom’s most powerful nobles, I was willing to let you wrap yourself around something hot before I began the interrogation.
You’ve done that now.” Leeana winced at Kaeritha’s pointed tone.
But she didn’t try to evade it.
She put her spoon into the empty bowl and set it neatly aside, then faced Kaeritha squarely. “I’m running away,” she said. “That much I’d already guessed,” the knight told her dryly. “So why don’t we just get on to the two whys?” “The two whys?” Leeana repeated with a puzzled expression. “Why number one: why you ran away.
Why number two: why you don’t expect me to march you straight home again.” “Oh.” Leeana blushed slightly, and her green eyes dropped to the fire crackling between them.
She gazed at the flames for several seconds, then looked back up at Kaeritha. — * * * At least the rain had stopped when they broke camp in the morning.
That was something, Kaeritha told herself as she swung lightly up into Cloudy’s saddle and settled the butt of her quarterstaff into the stirrup bucket in which a more traditional knight would have braced her lance.
In fact—she sucked in a deep, lung-filling draft of clear, cool morning air—it was quite a bit. She’d watched Leeana as unobtrusively as possible as they went about preparing to take the road once more.
The girl had been almost painfully ready to undertake any task, although it was obvious she’d never been faced with many of those tasks before in her life. Like any Sothōii noble, male or female, she’d been thrown into a saddle about the same time she learned to stand up unassisted, and her horsemanship skills were beyond reproach.
Her gelding, who rejoiced in a name even more highfaluting than “Dark War Cloud Rising,” answered perfectly amiably to “Boots,” and Kaeritha wondered if any Sothōii warhorse actually had to put up with its formal given name.
However that might be, Boots (a bay brown who took his name from his black legs and the white stockings on his forelegs) was immaculately groomed, and his tack and saddle furniture were spotless, despite the wet and mud.
Unfortunately, his rider was considerably less adept at others of the homey little chores involved in wilderness travel.
At least she was willing, though, as Kaeritha had noted, and she took direction amazingly well for one of her exalted birth.
All in all, Kaeritha was inclined to believe there was some sound metal in the girl. And there had better be, the champion thought more grimly as she watched Leeana swing nimbly up into Boots’ saddle.
Kaeritha found herself unable to do anything but respect Leeana’s motives, but the plain fact was that the girl couldn’t possibly have any realistic notion of how drastically her life was about to change.
It was entirely possible that, assuming she survived the shock, she would find her new life more satisfying and fulfilling.
Kaeritha hoped she would, but the gulf which yawned between the daughter of someone who was arguably the most powerful feudal magnate in an entire kingdom and one more anonymous war maid, despised by virtually everyone in the only world she’d ever known, was far deeper than a fall from the Wind Plain’s mighty ramparts might have been.
Surviving that plunge would be a shattering -experience—one fit to destroy any normal sheltered flower of noble femininity—however assiduously Leeana had tried to prepare herself for it ahead of time. On the other hand, Kaeritha had never had all that much use for sheltered flowers of noble femininity.
Was that the real reason she’d agreed to help the girl flee from the situation fate had trapped her into? A part of her wanted to think it was.
And another part wanted to think she was doing this because it was the duty of any champion of Tomanāk to rescue the helpless from persecution.
Given Leeana’s scathing description of Rulth Blackhill and his reputation, it was impossible for Kaeritha to think of a marriage between him and the girl as anything but the rankest form of persecution, after all. “Marriage” or no, it would be no better than a case of legally sanctioned rape, and Tomanāk, as the God of Justice, disapproved of persecution and rape, however they were sanctioned.
Besides, Leeana was right; she did have a legal right to make this decision . . .
If she could reach Kalatha. Both of those reasons were real enough, she thought.
But she also knew that at the heart of things was another, still deeper reason.
The memory of a thirteen-year-old orphan who’d found herself trapped into another, even grimmer life . . .
Until she refused to accept that -sentence. For a moment, Dame Kaeritha’s sapphire-blue eyes were darker and deeper—and colder—than the waters of Belhadan Bay.
Then the mood passed, and she shook herself like a dog, shaking off the water of memory, and gazed out through the cool, misty morning.
The new-risen sun hovered directly in front of them, a huge, molten ball of gold, bisected by the hard, sharp line of the horizon.
The morning mists rose to enfold it like steam from a forge, and the last of the previous day’s clouds were high-piled ramparts in the south, their peaks touched with the same golden glow, as the brisk northerly wind continued to sweep them away.
The road was just as muddy as it had been, but the day was going to be truly glorious, and she felt an eagerness stirring within her.
The eagerness to be off and doing once again. “Are you ready, Lady Leeana?” she asked. “Yes,” Leeana replied, urging Boots up beside Cloudy.
Then she chuckled.
Kaeritha cocked her head at the younger woman, and Leeana grinned. “I was just thinking that somehow it sounds more natural when you call me ‘girl’ than when you call me ‘Lady Leeana,’ ” she explained in answer to Kaeritha’s unspoken question. “Does it?” Kaeritha snorted. “Maybe it’s the peasant in me coming back to the surface.
On the other hand, it might not be such a bad thing if you started getting used to a certain absence of honorifics.” She touched Cloudy very gently with a heel, and the mare started obediently forward.
Leeana murmured something softly to Boots, and the gelding moved up at Cloudy’s shoulder and fell into step with the mare, as if the two horses were harnessed together. “I know,” the girl said after several silent minutes. “That I should start getting used to it, I mean.
Actually, I don’t think I’ll miss that anywhere near as much as I’ll miss having someone to draw my bath and brush my hair.” She held up a dirty hand and grimaced. “I’ve already discovered that there’s quite a gap between reality and bards’ tales.
Or, at least, the bards seem to leave out some of the more unpleasant little details involved in ‘adventures.’ And the difference between properly chaperoned hunting trips, with appropriate armsmen and servants along to look after my needs, and traveling light by myself has become rather painfully clear to me.” “A few nights camping out by yourself in the rain will generally start to make that evident,” Kaeritha agreed. “And I notice you didn’t bring along a tent.” “No,” Leeana said with another, more heartfelt grimace. “I had enough trouble coaxing Cook out of a few days worth of sandwiches without trying to bring along proper travel gear.” She shivered. “That first night was really unpleasant,” she admitted. “I never did get a fire started, and Boots needed my poncho worse than I did.
He’d worked hard, and I didn’t have anything else to rug him with.” “Hard to build a fire without dry wood,” Kaeritha observed, carefully hiding a deep pang of sympathy.
She pictured Leeana—a pampered young noblewoman, however much she might have wanted and striven to be something else—all alone in a cold, rainy night without a tent or a fire, or even the protection of her poncho.
The girl had been right to use it to protect her heated horse, instead, but it must have been the most wretched night of her entire existence. “Yes, I found that out.” Leeana’s grin was remarkably free of self-pity. “By the next morning, I’d figured out what I’d done wrong, so I spent about an hour finding myself a nice, dead log and hacking half a saddlebag of dry heartwood out of it with my dagger.” She held up her right palm with a rueful chuckle, examining the fresh blisters which crossed it. “At least the exercise got me warmed up! And the next night, I had something dry to start the fire with.
Heaven!” She rolled her eyes so drolly Kaeritha had no choice but to laugh.
Then she shook her head severely, returned her attention to the road, and asked Cloudy for a trot.
The mare obliged, with the smooth gait which was steadily becoming addictive, and they moved off in a brisk, steady splatter of mud. Yes, Kaeritha thought, treasuring green eyes that could laugh at their owner’s own wet, cold, undoubtedly frightened misery.
Yes, there is sound metal in this one, thank Tomanāk. Chapter Fifteen “Father isn’t far behind now.” Kaeritha looked up from the breakfast fire.
Leeana was standing beside the road, her raised arm hooked up across Boots’ withers while she stared back the way they’d come the day before.
Her expression was tense, and she stood very still, only the fingers of her right hand moving as they caressed the thick, shaggy warmth of the gelding’s winter coat. “What makes you so certain?” Kaeritha asked, for there’d been no question at all in the sober pronouncement. “I could say it’s because I know he had to have missed me by the second morning and that it’s easy to guess he’s been pushing hard after me ever since,” the girl said. “But the truth is, I just know.” She turned and looked at Kaeritha. “I always know where he and Mother are,” she said simply. Kaeritha chewed on that for a few moments, while she busied herself turning strips of bacon in her blackened camp skillet.
Then she whipped the bacon out of the popping grease and spread it over their last slabs of slightly stale bread.
She dumped the grease into the flames and watched the fire sputter eagerly, then looked back up at Leeana. — “I just do.” Leeana gave Boots one more caress, then stepped closer to Kaeritha and the fire and accepted her share of the bread and bacon.
She took an appreciative bite of the humble repast and shrugged. “I’m sorry.
I’m not trying to be mysterious about it—I just don’t know a good way to explain it.
Mother says the Sight has always run in her family, all the way back to the Fall.” She shrugged again. “I don’t really know about that.
It’s not as if there’ve been dozens of magi in our family, or anything like that.
But I always know where they are, or if they’re unhappy . . .
Or hurt.” She shivered, her face suddenly drawn and old beyond its years. “Just like I knew when Moonshine went down and rolled across Mother.” She stared at something only she could see for several seconds, then shook herself.
She looked down at the bread and bacon in her hand, as if seeing them for the first time, and gave Kaeritha a smile that was somehow shy, almost embarrassed, before she raised the food and bit into it again. “Do they always ‘know’ where you are?” Kaeritha asked after a moment. “No.” Leeana shook her head.
Then she paused. “Well, actually, I don’t know for certain about Mother.
I know when I was a very little girl, she always seemed to know just when I was about to get into mischief, but I always just put that down to ‘mommy magic.’ I do know Father doesn’t have any trace of whatever it is, though.
If he did, I’d have gotten into trouble so many times in the last few years that I doubt I’d be able to sit in a saddle at all! I’d never have gotten away with running away in the first place, either.
And I can tell from how unhappy and worried he feels right now that he doesn’t realize they’re no more than a few hours behind us.” Her eyes darkened with the last sentence, and her voice was low.
The thought of her father’s unhappiness and worry clearly distressed her. “It’s not too late to change your mind, Leeana,” Kaeritha said quietly.
The girl looked at her quickly, and the knight shrugged. “If he’s that close, all we have to do is sit here for a few hours.
Or we can go on.
From the map and directions your father’s steward gave me, Kalatha can’t be more than another two or three hours down the road.
But the decision is yours.” “Not anymore,” Leeana half-whispered.
Her nostrils flared, and then she shook her head firmly. “It’s a decision I’ve already made, Dame Kaeritha.
I can’t—won’t—change it now.
Besides,” she managed a crooked smile, “he may be unhappy and worried, but those aren’t the only things he’s feeling.
He knows where I’m going, and why.” “He does? You’re certain of that?” “Oh, I wasn’t foolish enough to leave any tear-spotted notes that might come to light sooner than I wanted,” Leeana said dryly. “Father is a wind rider, you know.
If I hadn’t managed to buy at least a full day’s head start, he’d have forgotten about waiting for his bodyguards and he and Hathan would have come after me alone.
And in that case, he’d have been certain to catch up with me, even on Boots. “Since he didn’t, I have to assume I did manage to keep anyone from realizing I’d left long enough to get the start I needed.
But Father isn’t an idiot, and he knows I’m not one, either.
He must have figured out where I was going the instant someone finally realized I was missing, and he’s been coming after me ever since.
But, you know, there’s a part of him that doesn’t want to catch me.” She finished the last bite of her bread and bacon, then stood, looking across at Kaeritha, and this time her smile was gentle, almost tender. “Like you, he’s afraid I’m making a terrible mistake, and he’s determined to keep me from doing it, if he can.
But he knows why I’m doing it, too.
And that’s why a part of him doesn’t want to catch me.
Actually wants me to beat him to Kalatha.
He knows as well as I do that the war maids are the only way I’ll avoid eventually being forced to become a pedigreed broodmare dropping foals for Blackhill . . .
Mother was never that for him, and he knows I’ll never be that for anyone.
He taught me to feel that way—to value myself that much—himself, and he knows that, too.” “Which won’t prevent him from stopping you if he can,” Kaeritha said. “No.” Leeana shook her head. “Silly, isn’t it? Here we both are—me, running away from him; him, chasing after me to bring me back, whether I want to come or not—and all of it because of how much we love each other.” A tear glittered for an instant, but she wiped it briskly away and turned to busy herself tightening the girth on Boots’ saddle. “Yes,” Kaeritha said softly, emptying the teapot over the fire’s embers and beginning to cover the ashes with dirt. “Yes, Leeana.
Very silly indeed.” * * * “Soumeta is here, Mayor.
She says she has an appointment.” Yalith Tamilthfressa, Mayor of Kalatha, looked up from the paperwork on her desk with a grimace.
Her assistant, Sharral Ahnlarfressa, stood in the door of her office, with a sour expression which was only too accurate a mirror of Yalith’s own emotions. “What about Theretha?” Yalith asked. “Is she here, too?” “Theretha?” Sharral shook her head. “It’s just Soumeta.
And I checked your calendar.
If she does have an appointment this morning, I didn’t write it down there.” “Neither did anyone else,” Yalith sighed. “In that case,” Sharral said grimly, “I’ll send her packing so fast her head will swim!” She started to turn to go, but Yalith’s quick headshake stopped her. “No,” the mayor said. “Oh, I’d love to turn you loose on her, Sharral, but I can’t quite do that.” — “And just which member of the Council do you expect to be fooled by all of this dancing around the point?” “I don’t expect to fool anyone,” Yalith said. “You know what sort of juggling act I’m already doing with the Council.
The sides are pretty clearly drawn, but as long as I stay within the bounds of custom and usage, Maretha’s clique doesn’t have a pretext to call for an open vote of censure.” “Do you really think it’s that bad?” Sharral looked at the mayor, her expression both dismayed and surprised. “Do I really think that? No.” Yalith shook her head. “But that doesn’t mean I’m right.
And it also doesn’t mean the situation can’t change.
So until I’m positive about exactly what it is Maretha wants—and that I can keep her from getting whatever it is—I’m not planning on taking any chances.” She shook her head again. “This thing has been building for a long time now, Sharral.
I don’t like the way the intensity has suddenly started climbing over the last year or two, either.
And, to be honest, I’m just as angry as Soumeta or Maretha could possibly be.
But right this minute, the situation is hanging on the very brink of going out of control.
We don’t need some silly confrontation—or anything!—to make things even worse.” Chapter Sixteen Bahzell Bahnakson stood on the battlements of Hill Guard Castle, gazing off into the distance and worrying.
Brandark Brandarkson stood at his left elbow and helped him do it. “Why do I have the feeling this was a really bad idea?” the Bloody Sword hradani murmured. “Coming up here?” Bahzell looked down at him and cocked an eyebrow, and Brandark shook his head with a tight grin.
It wasn’t raining.
In fact, the sun shone bright, and clear blue patches showed through fitful breaks in the clouds.
But the blustery wind was much stronger up here on the walls, where no obstacles blocked or abated its power, and both hradanis’ warrior braids blew out behind them. “No,” Brandark said.
He gestured at the road, stretching off to the east. “I meant Tellian’s haring off this way.” “It’s not as if he’d any other choice, is it now?” Bahzell replied, and Brandark shrugged. “The fact that something’s the only choice someone has, doesn’t make it a good idea when he does it,” he pointed out. “Especially not when he has as many enemies as Tellian does.
I don’t like the thought of his dashing about out there with no more than a score of bodyguards, Bahzell.” “First, it’s only by the gods’ grace that he’s any bodyguards at all with him,” Bahzell snorted. “Once Tarith turned up and he’d confirmation of all Leeana had done, he was all for heading out with naught but Hathan beside him.
Now that, I’m thinking, is something as most anyone would think was after being a bad idea.” “You know,” Brandark observed, “you’re developing quite a gift for understatement, Bahzell.” Bahzell only snorted again, louder, but both of them knew he was right.
Even Tellian had known that much, although both Hathan and Hanatha had found themselves forced to sit on him—almost literally—before he’d admitted it.
That had been harder for Hanatha than for his wind brother, but frantic as she was over her daughter’s safety, she was also the wife of one great noble and the daughter of another.
Despite the unmatchable speed with which any wind rider’s courser gifted him, the Lord Warden of the West Riding had no business at all putting himself at risk by gallivanting around the countryside unprotected.
It was entirely possible that one of his enemies might be keeping an eye on his comings and goings with an eye towards a quiet little assassination, assuming he was foolish enough to offer an opening, and not even a courser could outrun an arrow.
Besides, as Hathan had grimly pointed out, Leeana had stolen enough of a lead that it was unlikely even coursers could overtake her short of her destination, so there was no reason to dash out like reckless fools. “Second,” Bahzell continued after a moment, “that’s his daughter out there, Brandark.
He’s a noble and a ruler, aye.
But he’s after being a father before he’s any of those other things.” He shook his head. “He’ll not give over, no matter what.” “But is that really what’s best for Leeana?” Brandark asked more quietly.
Bahzell looked at him again, sharply, and the Bloody Sword shrugged. “I know he loves her, Bahzell.
And I know he wants her safely home again.
But Leeana’s no fool.
Whatever other people may think, you know—and so do her parents—that she didn’t do this on a whim.
If she thought it through as carefully as I’m sure she did, perhaps what she’s doing is actually for the best.” Bahzell grunted.
He’d thought the same thing himself as he remembered the pain, and the fear—and not for herself alone, he realized now—in a pair of jade-green eyes.
But he knew that even if Tellian had come to the exact same conclusion, it wouldn’t have made any difference to his determination to protect the daughter he loved from the consequences of her own decision. “It might be you’ve a point,” he said finally. “I’ll not deny I’ve wondered the same.
But in Tellian’s boots, I’d make the selfsame choice, and well I know it.” He shook his head again. “It’s a hard thing, Brandark.
A hard thing.” They fell silent again, gazing off into the wind, and wondering what was happening out there beyond the eastern horizon. * * * “Milord Champion!” Bahzell looked up in surprise.
The delicious odors of one of Tala’s dinners—rich, hot curry, chicken, beef, and potatoes—drifted tantalizingly upward from the bowls and dishes on the table before him, and evening was busily giving way to night outside the window.
He’d invited Gharnal and Hurthang to join him and Brandark for supper, but he hadn’t expected any other visitors this night.
And he certainly hadn’t expected to see Sir Jahlahan Swordspinner turn up in his quarters in person. “Aye, Sir Jahlahan?” he said mildly, setting down his knife and fork. “And how might it be as I could be of service?” — Lord Edinghas’ messenger snapped to his feet, his exhausted face taut with outrage, as soon as he laid eyes on Bahzell and Brandark.
His bone-deep weariness had clearly undermined whatever normal reserve he might have, and he opened his mouth angrily.
No doubt he intended to demand to know what Swordspinner thought he was doing bringing hradani into his mission to Hill Guard, and Bahzell couldn’t honestly blame him.
Not given the long and bloody history which lay between the Sothōii and the Horse Stealer clans.
Bahzell didn’t begin to have all the details, but the horrifying bits and pieces Swordspinner had shared with him on the walk here were more than enough to explain both the messenger’s exhaustion and his anger at suddenly finding himself face-to-face with hradani. But despite all of that, the man managed to clamp his jaws before his anger found words to express itself.
Bahzell was impressed by the other man’s self-control.
He doubted he could have matched it, had their circumstances been reversed.
And he was suddenly glad he’d sent Gharnal off with Hurthang to alert the Order. “Alfar Axeblade, be known to Prince Bahzell Bahnakson, son of Prince Bahnak of the Horse Stealer Hradani,” Swordspinner said, his tone formal.
Obviously, he, too, recognized Axeblade’s struggle with his emotions, and he kept his own voice carefully under control as he added, “And champion of Tomanāk.” “Champion of Tomanāk?” Axeblade repeated.
Despite all he could do, there was as much incredulity as surprise in his tone, and his weathered face flushed darker as he realized how he’d given himself away. “Aye,” Bahzell rumbled, his deep voice measured and dispassionate. “And I’ll not blame you for feeling a mite . . .
Surprised, Master Axeblade.” He produced a wry smile. “I’m thinking you couldn’t possibly be more surprised than I was when himself first turned up and told me as how such as I had the makings of a champion! Yet such I am, and if there’s aught I can be doing to serve you or Lord Warden Edinghas against the Dark, then that I will be doing.” There was a tang of iron promise in his voice.
Axeblade heard it, but so many centuries of mutual hatred couldn’t be washed away so quickly. “I hope you’ll not take this wrongly . . .
Milord Champion,” he said, after a moment.
He seemed to have trouble getting the title out, as if the words were sharp-edged enough to cut his tongue. “But Warm Springs isn’t exactly what you might call the very heart of the West Riding.
Often enough, news takes a while getting to us, and we’d not heard aught about you.
So if I could be asking, what’s a hradani doing here?” “And what’s a hradani doing pretending as he’s a champion of Tomanāk, for that matter?” Bahzell added dryly, and Axeblade flushed again.
But he also nodded stubbornly, and Bahzell chuckled. “Master Axeblade,” Swordspinner began stiffly, “Prince Bahzell is Baron Tellian’s guest.
Under the circumstances, I don’t think—” “Let be, Sir Jahlahan,” Bahzell interrupted.
The seneschal looked at him sharply, and the Horse Stealer shrugged. “In Master Axeblade’s place, I’d not be so polite,” he said dryly, and returned his attention to the other man. “What I’m after doing here is just a mite complicated,” he said. “It’s glad enough I’ll be to explain it all to you, and to Lord Edinghas, assuming as how I have the opportunity.
For now, let’s just be saying that Baron Tellian and I—aye, and my father, as well—are after doing what we can to be keeping our swords out of one another’s bellies for a change.
That’s what I’m doing here at Hill Guard.
But what you’re really asking, Master Axeblade, is why a Horse Stealer should be offering to help any Sothōii—or coming within a league or three of any courser ever born.
Or, for that matter, why in the world you should be trusting such as me to do any such thing.” “Aye, that I am,” Axeblade said after a moment. “Your folk aren’t named ‘Horse Stealer’ for naught . . .
And Tomanāk Himself knows how many of our horses you’ve stolen, slaughtered, and eaten,” he continued, matching bluntness to bluntness, and Bahzell smiled more naturally.
This man might hate hradani, but Bahzell recognized a kindred soul when he met one. “That we have,” he acknowledged. “And, truth to tell, there’s more than enough of my folk as would cheerfully do the same, even now.
But my father’s not after being one of them, and no more am I.
We’ve done each other harm enough over the years, I’m thinking, Master Axeblade.
Time we tried another road, one where neither of us is after raiding the other.” Axeblade looked as if he found the entire concept impossible to grasp, but at least he was polite enough not to call Bahzell insane. “I can’t be undoing all Horse Stealers are having done to the Sothōii,” Bahzell continued. “And no more can you—or Baron Tellian, himself—undo a single thing as Sothōii are having done to us.
But if we’re to stop killing one another once and for all, I’m thinking as how it will have to start somewhere.
So why not here, and now? And if it’s Tomanāk’s little joke to choose such as me to be playing peacemaker to you Sothōii, then it’s little choice I have but to be doing the same for the coursers.
Or do you think Horse Stealers are daft enough to think we could be after making peace with one and not the other?” “That sounds mighty fine and reasonable, Milord,” Axeblade said in a tone he managed to keep neutral. “I’m not so very sure the coursers will think it does, though.
They’ve long memories, too, you know.” “So they do,” Bahzell agreed. “And I suppose it’s likely enough one of them might like to feel a little Horse Stealer crushed under his toes.
Mind you, I’d not think it such a marvelous idea, but I can see how it might be having a little appeal for a courser.
Still and all, Baron Tellian’s courser, and Hathan Shieldarm’s courser, have been after being civil enough.” He shrugged. “I’ll take my chances that other coursers will be being reasonable enough to give one of Tomanāk’s champions time enough to at least be saying a few words in his own defense before they’re after turning him into Wind Plain mud. “And whatever it is they may think about the notion,” he went on in a voice which was suddenly devoid of any humor at all, “what Sir Jahlahan’s told me of your tale is after leaving me no choice.
I’ll not pretend I’ve any clear idea of who or what might have been able to do such as you’ve described.
But this I do know, Master Axeblade—whoever, or whatever, it may be, it’s flat my business to be stopping it.
And stop it I will.” Axeblade started to say something more, then stopped, looking at Bahzell’s expression.
Several seconds passed in silence, and then Lord Edinghas’ messenger nodded slowly. “I believe you will, Milord Champion,” he said. “Or die trying, any road.
To my mind, that’s the most anyone could ask of any man . . .
Human or hradani.
So if you’re daft enough to ride into the middle of a holding full of Sothōii and coursers who’re none of them going to be happy to see hradani, now of all times, then I suppose I’m daft enough to take you there.” “Take us there, you mean,” Brandark put in.
Axeblade looked at him, and the Bloody Sword shrugged. “He’s not very bright, but he is my friend,” he said lightly. “I’d never forgive myself if I let him out without a leash and he suffered a mischief.” “As well take two hradani—or a dozen—as one,” Axeblade agreed with an answering shrug. “I don’t know who’s going to explain any of this to the coursers, though!” he added. “Well, as to that,” Bahzell said, “I’ve taken the liberty of asking Sir Jahlahan to send word to Deep Water.
Would it happen you and your lord are after knowing Sir Kelthys and his courser?” “Aye,” Axeblade said slowly, his expression thoughtful. “So am I,” Bahzell said. “And I’m thinking as how Kelthys will vouch for me to you two-legged Sothōii, while Walasfro is after talking fast enough to the other coursers to keep me untrodden on.
Besides, like as not we’ll be needing him if the surviving coursers are to tell us what happened out there.” “That we will,” Axeblade agreed. — Unlike the weather during his last visit to the baron, the day beyond the window was beautiful.
Just a hint of a breeze whispered across the city of Balthar, scarcely enough to set the great standard over the castle above the city gently flapping.
Birdsong echoed from the city’s towers and eaves, drifting through the rise and fall of voices from the market two blocks over and the rumbling clatter of the wheels and hooves of a heavy freight wagon passing below the window.
The early morning sun shone brilliantly from a high blue sky, cradled amid dramatic billows of fleecy white clouds.
Like most Sothōii towns and cities, Balthar enjoyed excellent drains and sewers, and the air breathing lightly through the window was remarkably free of the odors it would have carried in many another city the unremarkable man had visited in his time.
He drew a deep, lung-filling breath of the fresh spring air . . .
Which did absolutely nothing to improve his mood. “Well!” he said finally, turning away from the window.
He balanced on the balls of his feet, weight forward, hands still clasped behind him, and both of the other men in the room seemed to shrink ever so slightly away from him. “This is a fine mess, isn’t it?” His tone was almost conversational, but neither of the others appeared inclined to respond, and he smiled thinly. “Come, now! You know the plan as well as I do.
Would you say it’s proceeding properly?” “Not exactly according to schedule, no,” one of his companions finally replied.
The speaker was taller than the nondescript man, with black hair, yet shared something of his lack of remarkability.
Except, perhaps, for his dark eyes.
There was a peculiar stillness about them, an almost reptilian, unblinking watchfulness. “On the other hand, Master Varnaythus, that’s scarcely mine or Jerghar’s fault, is it?” He met the nondescript man’s gaze steadily, and it was Varnaythus who finally shrugged irritably. “I suppose not,” he said in a peevish tone.
Then he shook his head. “No.
No, it isn’t,” he continued in quite a different tone.
It wasn’t precisely apologetic, perhaps, but it was at least an admission that his irritation was making him unreasonable. “Actually,” he turned back to the window’s open casement, but his shoulders weren’t quite so taut and his hands’ interlocked grip relaxed slightly, “I think what I’m most frustrated about is having such an unanticipated opportunity slip through our fingers this way.” “If I’d had even a day or two of warning,” the black-haired man replied, “I might have been able to put together enough men to do something about it.
But Tellian rode out of here like Fiendark’s Furies were on his heels.
And the armsmen he took with him were all from his personal guard.” He shrugged. “I don’t have more than a dozen men here in Balthar at the moment—and usually barely half that many, given how low a profile we have to maintain—and I’m not going up against Tellian’s handpicked guards, even from ambush, without at least twice their number.
We might get Tellian before they killed us all, but the Guild doesn’t accept contracts it knows are going to be suicidal.” “I understand, Salgahn,” Varnaythus said. “I don’t like it, but I certainly understand it.
And I don’t disagree with your analysis.
It’s just that opportunities to catch Tellian in the open, especially when he’s distracted by personal problems and his guard might be down, are so few and far between that I hate to waste one when it comes along.” “A pity you couldn’t scry far enough ahead to see it coming,” the third man said at that.
Jerghar Sholdan was taller than Varnaythus, shorter than Salgahn, and better dressed than either of them.
Indeed, he looked like what he was—a wealthy merchant banker who had arrived in Balthar several months before to represent the interests of half a dozen prominent Axeman and Purple Lord merchants.
He was well groomed and clean-shaven, with fair hair, manicured hands, and cheerful blue eyes, yet there was something else about him. . . . Varnaythus knew what that “something else” was, since it was he who had provided the charm which both offset the “banker’s” aversion to direct sunlight and prevented others from noticing his minor peculiarities. “Scrying isn’t as simple as people without a trace of the Art at their command sometimes assume, Jerghar,” Varnaythus said, still gazing out the window. “And unless I’m mistaken, it was your job to keep Tellian under observation, since that entire portion of the operation is your responsibility.” He turned from the window finally, facing Sholdan with a thin smile. “Scrying takes concentration, a lack of distractions, and enough preliminary information to at least know where to look.
Even the best wizard can only employ one scry spell at a time, you know.
To watch all of our possible targets by gramerhain, I’d have to concentrate on doing nothing but that, and given the quality of coconspirator currently available to me, I don’t seem to be able to find enough time free of distractions to do other people’s work for them.” Sholdan’s eyes narrowed, and his lips tightened, showing just a flash of sharp, oddly elongated teeth.
He started a quick retort, then made himself swallow it unspoken as he remembered who—and what—Varnaythus was. Varnaythus watched him unblinkingly, then smiled again, even more thinly than before. “The problem,” the black wizard said as if the venomous exchange had never occurred, “is that there are too many cooks busily stirring this particular pot.
We know who most of the major players are, but don’t delude yourself into believing that we know who all of them are.
There’s no possible way to predict what people you don’t even know about are going to do next.
That’s bad enough, but I prefer it to having someone I do know about take me as completely by surprise as Cassan managed with this little gem.” “Do you think he kept us in the dark because he’s begun to distrust us?” Salgahn asked. “I think he kept us in the dark because he doesn’t want his own shadow to know what he’s doing, much less anyone else,” Varnaythus snorted. “Which, to be fair, doesn’t make him so very different from us.
And he did at least warn me he’d taken measures to ‘distract’ Tellian.” The wizard twitched his shoulders in another shrug, his smile tart as alum. “He probably wouldn’t have given me any specifics, whatever he expected, but I doubt very much that he anticipated a result quite this . . .
After all, who would have expected the girl to bolt this way?” “I can see that,” Salgahn said thoughtfully. “On the other hand, I wonder what else he’s working on that he hasn’t bothered to mention to us?” “He’s operating exactly the same way we are,” Varnaythus replied. “We’re certainly not going to tell him what we actually have in mind, are we?” He took one hand from behind him and waved it in a dismissive gesture. “Our whole object, where he’s concerned, is to keep him convinced he’s the prime mover and that he’s simply using our services.
I’m sure he’s intelligent enough to assume we have ends of our own in mind, however, and that means he’s not stupid enough to trust us.
So he’ll tell us just enough about his plans to make us useful to him . . .
Just as we’re doing where he’s concerned.
Of course, however much he may distrust us, it’s probably never occurred to him that we intend to destabilize the entire Kingdom and let him take the blame for it.” “I’m sure it hasn’t,” Sholdan agreed, working his way back into the conversation. “After all, he’s a baron, and he doesn’t know who we’re really working for.
He sees us only as tools, not anyone who could seriously threaten someone as powerful as he is.” “Which is why They wanted him brought into this in the first place,” Varnaythus said. “I only wish I felt more confident that They aren’t overreaching.” “Of course They aren’t!” Sholdan stared at him, eyes wide in shock.
Salgahn seemed much less appalled by Varnaythus’ temerity, but dog brothers weren’t especially noted for piety even where their own patron, Sharnā, was concerned. “Oh, don’t be an old woman, Jerghar!” Varnaythus snapped. “Of course They can make mistakes! If They couldn’t, They’d have finished off the other side twelve hundred years ago.
What bothers me this time around is how many balls They expect us to keep in the air simultaneously.
If it all works—or even if only half of it works—the results will be all They could hope for.
But the more complex the plan, the more opportunities there are for things to go wrong, too.
All I’m saying is that, speaking as the person responsible for making it all fit together at the critical moment, I wish They could have kept things a bit simpler.” — “Champions of Tomanāk frequently find themselves a bit unpopular, Milord,” she said. “On the other hand, as Bahzell has said a time or two, ‘a champion is one as does what needs doing.’ ” She shrugged. “This needed doing.” “Perhaps it did,” he acknowledged. “But I hope one of the consequences won’t be to undermine whatever it is you’re here to do for Scale Balancer.” “As far as that goes, Milord,” she said thoughtfully, “it’s occurred to me that helping Leeana get here in the first place may have been a part of what I’m supposed to do.
I’m not sure why it should have been, but it feels right, and I’ve learned it’s best to trust my feelings in cases like this.” Tellian didn’t look as if he found the thought that any god, much less the War God, should want one of his champions to help his only child run away to the war maids particularly encouraging.
If so, she didn’t blame him a bit . . .
And at least he was courteous enough not to put his feelings into words. “At any rate,” she continued, “I will be most happy to deliver your message—all of your message—to -Leeana.” “Thank you,” he repeated, and the corners of his eyes crinkled with an edge of genuine humor as he looked around Yalith’s office. “And now, I suppose, we ought to invite the Mayor back into her own office.
It would be only courteous to reassure her that we haven’t been carving one another up in here, after all!” Chapter Twenty “To what do I owe the pleasure?” the richly dressed nobleman asked sardonically as soon as the servant who had ushered Varnaythus into his study departed, closing the door silently behind him. “I was merely in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop by and compare notes with you, Milord Triahm,” the wizard-priest said smoothly.
He walked across to one of the comfortable chairs which faced the other man’s desk and arched his eyebrows as he rested one hand atop the chair back.
His host nodded brusque permission, and he seated himself, then leaned back and crossed his legs. “It’s possible things will be coming to a head sooner than we’d anticipated,” he continued. “And a new wrinkle has been added—one I thought you should know about.
I’m not certain how much effect it will have on your own concerns here in Lorham, but the possibilities it suggests are at least . . .
Intriguing.” “Indeed?” The other man ignored his own chair and crossed to prop a shoulder against the frame of the window behind his desk, half-turning his back on his guest.
He gazed out through the glass at the gathering dusk.
Thalar Keep, the ancestral seat of the Pickaxes of Lorham, loomed against the darkening sky, dominating the view, and his mouth tightened ever so slightly.
Varnaythus couldn’t see his expression with his face turned away towards the window, but he read the other man’s emotions clearly in the tight set of his shoulders. “Indeed,” the nondescript wizard confirmed. “Unless my sources are much less reliable than usual, a new war maid will be arriving in Kalatha sometime soon.” “How marvelous,” the nobleman growled, then made a spitting sound. “And just why should the arrival of one more unnatural bitch concern me?” “Ah, but this particular unnatural bitch is Lady Leeana Bowmaster,” Varnaythus purred. For a second or two, Triahm seemed not to have heard him at all.
Then he whipped around from the window, his eyes wide with disbelief. “You’re joking!” “Not in the least, Milord,” Varnaythus said calmly. “It’s remotely possible my information is in error,” actually, he knew it wasn’t; he’d been tracking Leeana in his gramerhain for the last several days and witnessed her arrival in Kalatha the day before, “but I have every reason to believe it’s accurate.
If she hasn’t arrived in Kalatha already, it’s only a matter of a day or so before she does.” “Well, well, well,” the other man murmured.
He moved away from the window and lowered himself slowly into his own chair, never taking his eyes from Varnaythus’ face. “That does present some possibilities, doesn’t it?” “I believe you might reasonably say that, Milord,” Varnaythus replied in the voice of a tomcat with cream-clotted whiskers. “Tellian’s always been overly soft where those bitches are concerned,” Triahm growled. “Probably because his idiot of an ancestor provided them with the initial foothold to begin their pollution of the Kingdom.
Personally, that connection would have been enough to make me feel ashamed, not turn me into some sort of lap cat for them.
Maybe this humiliation will finally open his eyes!” “It’s certainly possible,” Varnaythus agreed.
For his part, he’d always found Triahm’s blindly bigoted, unthinking hatred for the war maids and all they stood for as stupid as it was useful.
He doubted that a man like Tellian would ever fall prey to its like, however. On the other hand, Tellian was a Sothōii, and now that his daughter had succeeded in reaching the war maids before he overtook her, it was at least possible he would react exactly as Triahm anticipated.
Which, after all, was one of the reasons Varnaythus had decided against attempting to intercept and assassinate the girl.
Kaeritha’s presence was the other reason, he admitted frankly to himself.
Champions of Tomanāk were hard to kill, even—or especially—by arcane means.
Still, he’d felt sufficiently confident of managing it to have justified the risk of a few proxies, at least. But however badly her death might have hurt and weakened her parents, the Dark Gods would weaken the Kingdom far more seriously if their servants could set the Lord Warden of the West Riding openly against the war maids.
Even if Tellian managed to avoid that particular trap, having his only child run away to become a despised war maid was going to cost him dearly in political support from the more conservative members of the Royal Council.
Not to mention all of the delicious possibilities for destabilizing the war maids’ charter when the question of the Balthar succession was thrown into the mix. The wizard-priest rubbed mental hands together in gleeful contemplation of the possibilities, but he kept his expression composed and attentive. — “There’s not really any need to put Salthan out of the way,” Varnaythus said after a brief consideration. “Or, rather, we can let Triahm deal with it once Trisu’s dead.
That’s the beauty of it.
We didn’t have to change anything at this end.” “I know.
I’d still feel better if I had more positive control of the situation, though.” “There’s never any such thing as too much control,” Varnaythus agreed. “Still, it sounds as if you have things in hand.
What truly matters is goading the war maids into providing the proper provocation, not whether or not Trisu responds to it exactly the way we want him to.
After all,” he leaned back with an expansive gesture and an icy smile, “when the time comes, what will count isn’t what actually happened, but what everyone thinks happened.” Chapter Twenty-One “Leeana, this is Garlahna Lorhanalfressa.
She’ll be your mentor during your probationary period.” Leeana saw a very young war maid, no more than six years older than she was.
Garlahna was considerably shorter than Leeana, with brown hair and brown eyes.
She looked as if she ought to be smiling, but at the moment her expression and body language were soberly attentive, almost brusquely businesslike.
She stood at a sort of parade rest, feet slightly spread and hands clasped behind her, her attention evenly divided between Leeana and Erlis Rahnafressa.
Erlis was the fair-haired, brown-eyed Commander of One Hundred—roughly equivalent to the rank of captain in the Empire of the Axe’s Royal and Imperial Army—who appeared to be in charge of training new war maid . . .
At forty-three, she was a bit old for her rank, but she looked like a competent, no-nonsense sort of person.
Perhaps the left arm she’d lost just above the elbow explained why she’d risen no higher in rank.
She reminded Leeana a great deal of a female version of Sir Jahlahan Swordspinner. The three of them stood in the soggy grass behind the roofed exercise salle, and Leeana felt as if she’d dressed inappropriately for a formal party.
She wore the leather trousers and smock her mother had deplored with increasing frequency, yet this time she was the one who seemed dreadfully overdressed for the occasion.
Erlis and Garlahna both wore the traditional war maid chari and yathu.
The former was a short green kilt which fell barely to mid-thigh, and the latter was something which might have been described (in a moment of extreme charity) as a short, abbreviated—very abbreviated—bodice.
But it wasn’t boned and happened to be made out of fabric-lined, glove-supple leather.
Whereas the main support of a regular bodice came from below, with little or no weight actually bearing on the shoulders, the yathu was equipped with buckle-adjustable shoulder straps which crossed on the wearer’s shoulder blades.
It was shorter, snugger, and stronger than any conventional “bodice” Leeana had ever seen.
She could see where that support might come in handy, she supposed, but she hardly needed it.
Not yet, at least.
Garlahna, on the other hand, although shorter than Leeana, was considerably bustier, which her yathu made amply—one might almost have said abundantly—apparent. Although Leeana had heard tales of the “licentious” and “shocking” war maid garments, she’d never actually seen them until she reached Kalatha, and she found herself somewhat in two minds about them.
They certainly seemed practical enough, but still . . .
The fact that both war maids were also barefoot, despite the chilly spring breeze and the muddy footing, whereas she still wore her riding boots, didn’t make her feel one bit less overdressed, either. “Garlahna, this is Leeana Hanathafressa,” Erlis continued calmly, and Leeana’s entire body tensed. Her concern for anything as unimportant as what she might or might not be wearing vanished instantly, and her head twitched as it tried to whip around towards Erlis.
She stopped herself in time, but it was hard, hard.
It was the first time anyone had ever called her that, and the loss of her father’s name hit her like an axe.
Yet she’d known it was coming.
Every war maid was known legally by her mother’s given name, not whatever surname she might have borne before she became a war maid.
It wasn’t as if Leeana had a choice—she didn’t—or as if she didn’t love her mother or hated to be known as Hanatha’s daughter.
But she still felt as if in that moment, when Erlis first used her matronym, she had somehow abandoned her father, and it hurt.
Perhaps it hurt even more because, in a way, some small, deeply hidden piece of her insisted that that was precisely what she had done. But much as it hurt, she refused to let herself look at Erlis in either surprise or pain.
And certainly not in anger.
She suspected that her reaction to that first, abrupt use of her new name was a test, or at least a part of the training process she was about to begin. “I’m pleased to meet you, Leeana,” Garlahna said after a moment.
Her voice was deeper than Leeana’s, with a musical throatiness. “I hope I can help you settle in here reasonably comfortably.” Leeana did glance at Erlis this time, out of the corner of her eye, and the Hundred nodded. “Thank you . . .
Garlahna,” Leeana said then. “I hope I can fit in quickly, but—” she flashed a small smile “—I wonder if any new war maid ever really settles in comfortably.” She heard something suspiciously like a smothered snort from Erlis’ direction, and Garlahna grinned.
Then she smoothed the smile quickly from her expression and nodded with appropriate sobriety. “It does come as quite a shock for most of us, whatever we expected ahead of time,” she agreed. “Most of us survive it, though,” Erlis put in dryly, and Leeana looked back at her. “And you’ll have your opportunity to begin surviving it first thing tomorrow morning, Leeana,” the Hundred continued briskly. “You’ll be joining us for calisthenics at dawn.
Once you’ve had a chance to warm up, I’ll evaluate the level of your current general physical skills.
After breakfast, you’ll have your first session with Ravlahn—that’s Ravlahn Thregafressa, my assistant arms master—and me.
We’ll see where you are in terms of self-defense and -weapons skills.
Then, after lunch,” Erlis continued, apparently oblivious to Leeana’s reaction, “you’ll have an hour or two with Lanitha Sarthayafressa.
She’s our archivist, but she’s also the principal of our school here in Kalatha.
She’ll evaluate your basic literacy, your math ability, and your general knowledge.
That should take you to an hour or so before supper, and you’ll be assigned to one of the dining hall crews for that.
I’m not sure which of the cooks will be in charge of the kitchen, but Garlahna will be responsible for finding that out and seeing to it that you report in the right place at the right time.” She paused and smiled at Leeana, possibly with a tiny edge of compassion. “Any questions?” she asked then. “Ah, no, Hundred Erlis,” Leeana replied after a moment spent womanfully throttling the dozens of questions she wanted to ask. “Good.” Leeana thought she might detect a trace of approval in Erlis’ eyes, but if she had, the hundred let no sign of it show in her voice or expression. “In that case, I’ll leave you with Garlahna.” She nodded briskly, turned on her heel, and strode away, leaving the two young women alone. * * * Leeana stood gazing at Garlahna while butterflies seemed to circle one another in some sort of intricate dance in her midsection.
She felt a fluttery-pulsed uncertainty she was not accustomed to, and none of the social formulae or skills she’d been taught as a baron’s daughter offered her any hint about what to do next. — He smiled, and Edinghas smiled back.
Then the lord warden’s expression sobered. “Sir Jahlahan wrote that you’d see it that way, Milord.
And I’m glad.
But I’d also be happier if there’d never been need for a champion of Tomanāk to come to Warm Springs.
And especially not for a reason like this.” “Aye, I’ll not disagree with you there,” Bahzell said somberly. “Well, I suppose we should get to it, then,” Edinghas sighed. “I warn you, Milord, I’ve no idea how they’ll react when they meet you.
We’ve still no idea what happened to them out there, but whatever it was, it’s marked them more than just physically.” His jaw tightened. “I’ve never seen coursers frightened, Milord.
Not before this.
But now—” He sighed again and turned to lead the way into the stable. * * * Warm Springs’ stables had been built to a much larger scale than those of most manors because of the holding’s long association with the Warm Springs coursers.
The main stable was a high, airy structure, with huge, open-fronted stalls that were well kept and spotlessly clean.
And, in spite of everything, Bahzell was unprepared for what he found inside it. He’d asked Brandark to remain outside, with the other members of the Order.
The last thing they needed was to overwhelm the injured coursers with the presence of so many hradani.
He knew that, but no amount of logic could keep him from feeling alone and isolated among so many humans, none of whom knew him, and all of whom were his people’s hereditary enemies. He faced that thought, and then put it firmly behind him.
He couldn’t afford it now, he told himself, and turned his attention to the coursers he’d come to see. Despite his people’s name and reputation, he’d had quite a bit of experience with horses.
He’d actually ridden (if not particularly well, and only for fairly brief periods) on several occasions, and the Horse Stealers’ traditional enmity with the Sothōii more or less required them to be familiar with cavalry and its capabilities.
No Horse Stealer was ever going to be a cavalryman himself, given his people’s sheer size, so most of his personal experience had been with draft animals, but like any Horse Stealer, he had an expert eye when it came to evaluating quality horseflesh. For all of that, he had never come within a mile of any courser until he encountered Baron Tellian and Dathgar and Hathan and Gayrhalan in the Gullet.
To a large extent, that was because his father had outlawed raids on the Wind Plain less than five years after Bahzell had earned his warrior’s braid.
To an even larger extent, though, it had been because it was more than any hradani’s life was worth to come within what any courser stallion might consider threatening range of his herd . . .
Which equated to coming within the stallion’s line of sight.
The reservations Gayrhalan continued to nourish where Bahzell was concerned even now only underscored the wisdom of remaining safely out of reach of any courser’s battleaxe jaws and piledriver hooves. Dathgar had become rather more comfortable with Bahzell, but even Tellian’s companion remained . . .
Uneasy in close proximity to him.
Still, coursers were at least as intelligent as most of the Races of Man, and both Dathgar and Gayrhalan, like Sir Kelthys’ Walasfro, had been wise enough to recognize that Bahzell was not the slavering hradani stereotype for which the coursers had cherished such hatred for so long. Nonetheless, he recognized that it behooved him to approach these coursers cautiously.
None of them had ever met him; Sir Kelthys had not yet arrived, so there was no wind rider and his companion to vouch for Bahzell; and these were the brutally traumatized survivors of a merciless massacre.
They were unlikely, to say the least, to take the sudden appearance of eight hradani well. But when he stepped into the stable and saw the condition of those survivors, it was hard—even harder than he had anticipated—to remember the need for caution and distance. The seven adults were bad enough.
Even now, they shivered uncontrollably, as if with an ague, rolling their eyes and flinching away from any unexpected sound or movement.
Seeing horses in such a state of terror would have sufficed to break any heart.
Seeing coursers reduced to such straits was the stuff of nightmare, and not just for Sothōii like Alfar or Edinghas. Not one of the terrified survivors had escaped unwounded, and one of the fillies had lost her right ear and eye and bore an ugly, ragged, wound that ran from the point of her left hip forward almost to her shoulder.
She must have been almost four years old, and it was obvious that her technically “juvenile” status had not kept her out of the heart of her herd’s battle.
Her right knee was lacerated, with a deep tear extending downward along the cannon.
It seemed impossible that it could have missed the extensor tendons, but although she obviously favored the leg, it was still taking her weight. She bore at least half a dozen other, scarcely less brutal wounds, and there was something wrong about all of them.
Coursers healed almost as rapidly as hradani, yet those deep, wicked trenches still oozed.
Their discharge crusted her shaggy winter coat, and Bahzell could detect the scent of corruption from where he stood, even through the normal stable smells about him.
The injured filly’s head drooped, and her breathing was labored, yet her outward damages, grievous though they might be, were less deadly than the wounds no physical eye could see. Bahzell felt every muscle tighten as his vision shifted.
It was an aspect of his champion’s status that he had yet to become fully accustomed to, and his jaw clenched as he seemed to find himself suddenly able to look inside the filly’s body.
He could “see” the powerful muscles, the tendons and bones, the lungs and mighty heart . . . And the vile green pollution spreading slowly, slowly through every vein and artery in her body.
Any lesser creature, he knew, would already have succumbed to the infiltrating poison, and even the filly was fading fast. Nausea churned deep in his belly as the sheer evil of the creeping contamination washed over him.
It took a wrenching physical effort to tear his eyes from her and turn that same, penetrating gaze upon the surviving foals. Bahzell Bahnakson grunted, as if someone had just punched him in the belly.
The foals had been less rent and torn than the adults who had fought to protect them, but they were also younger and smaller, with less resistance to the poison spreading from the wounds they had taken.
The poison, Bahzell realized, which no horse leech, no physical healer, could possibly see or recognize. “I’d thought you said as how there were after being eight foals,” he said to Alfar, and even to his own ear, his deep voice sounded harsh. “There were, Milord Champion,” Lord Edinghas said grimly before Alfar could respond. “We lost the worst hurt of them, a colt not more than eight months old, yesterday.” The lord warden shook his head, his face ashen. “We shouldn’t have, Milord.
A horse with those wounds, yes, but not a courser.
Never a courser.” “He’s right,” another voice said from Bahzell’s right, and the Horse Stealer turned towards the speaker.
It was a young man, not yet out of his twenties, whose face and chestnut hair proclaimed his parentage.
And whose eyes were hard and hostile as they met Bahzell’s. “My son, Hahnal, Prince Bahzell,” Lord Edinghas said. Unlike his father and the armsmen guarding the stable, Hahnal was neither armed nor armored.
He wore a smock, instead, marked with old bloodstains—and some not so old—and his youthful face was haggard. — The unfortunate officer from the battlements was waiting for her in the courtyard beyond the gatehouse by the time she emerged from the gate tunnel.
Seen at closer range, he was rather more prepossessing than Kaeritha’s first impression had suggested.
Not that that was particularly difficult, she thought dryly. His coloring was unusually dark for a Sothōii, and he stared up at her, his brown eyes clinging to the embroidered sword and mace of Tomanāk, glittering in gold bullion on the front of her poncho.
From his expression, he would have found a fire-breathing dragon considerably less unnatural, but he was at least trying to handle the situation as if it were a normal one. “Ah, please forgive my seeming discourtesy, Dame . . .
Kaeritha,” he said.
There was a slight questioning note in his pronunciation of her name, Kaeritha noticed, and nodded pleasantly, acknowledging his apology even as she confirmed that he had it right. “I’m afraid,” the officer continued with a surprisingly genuine smile, “that we’re not accustomed to seeing champions of Tomanāk here in Lorham.” “There aren’t that many of us,” Kaeritha agreed, amiably consenting to pretend that that had been the true reason for his confusion. “I’ve sent word of your arrival to Lord Trisu,” he continued. “I’m sure he’ll want to come down to the gate to greet you properly and in person.” Or to kick me back out of the gate if he decides I’m not a champion after all, Kaeritha added silently.
On the other hand, one must be polite, I suppose. “Thank you, Captain—?” “Forgive me,” the officer said hastily. “I seem to be forgetting all of my manners today! I am called Sir Altharn.” “Thank you, Sir Altharn,” Kaeritha said. “I appreciate the prompt and efficient manner in which you’ve discharged your duties.” The words were courteously formal, but Sir Altharn obviously noticed the gently teasing edge to her voice.
For a moment he started to color up again, but then, to her pleased surprise, he shook his head and smiled at her, instead. “I suppose I had that coming,” he told her. “But truly, Dame Kaeritha, I’m seldom quite so inept as I’ve managed to appear this morning.” “I believe that,” Kaeritha said, and somewhat to her own surprise, it was true. “Thank you.
That’s kinder than I deserve,” Sir Altharn said. “I hope I’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate the fact that I don’t always manage to put my own boot in my mouth.
Or, at least, that I usually remember to take my spurs off first!” He laughed at himself, so naturally that Kaeritha laughed with him.
There might be some worthwhile depths to this fellow after all, she reflected. “I’m sure you’ll have the chance,” she told him. “In fact, I—” She broke off in midsentence as four more men, one of them the messenger Altharn had dispatched, arrived from the direction of the central keep.
The one in the lead had to be Trisu, she thought.
His stride was too imperious, his bearing too confident—indeed, arrogant—for him to be anyone else.
He was fair-haired, gray-eyed, and darkly tanned.
He was also very young, no more than twenty-four or twenty-five, she judged.
And as seemed to be the case with every male Sothōii nobleman Kaeritha had so far met, he stood comfortably over six feet in height.
That would have been more than enough to make him impressive, but if his height was typical of the Sothōii, his breadth was not.
Most of them tended—like Sir Altharn or Baron Tellian—towards a lean and rangy look, but Trisu Pickaxe’s shoulders were almost as broad in proportion to his height as Brandark’s.
He must, she reflected, have weighed close to three hundred pounds, none of it fat, and she felt a twinge of sympathy for any warhorse which found itself under him. He was unarmored, but he’d taken time to belt on a jewel-hilted saber in a gold-chased black scabbard, and two of the men behind him—obviously armsmen—wore the standard steel breastplates and leather armor of Sothōii horse archers. “So!” Trisu rocked to a halt and tucked his hands inside his sword belt as he glowered up at Kaeritha.
She looked back down at him calmly from Cloudy’s saddle, her very silence an unspoken rebuke of his brusqueness.
He seemed remarkably impervious to it, however, for his only response was to bare his teeth in a tight, humorless smile. “So you claim to be a champion of Tomanāk, do you?” he continued before the silence could stretch out too far. “I do not ‘claim’ anything, Milord,” Kaeritha returned in a deliberately courteous but pointed tone.
She smiled thinly. “It would take a braver woman than me to attempt to pass herself off falsely as one of His champions.
Somehow, I don’t think He’d like that very much, do you?” Something flashed in Trisu’s gray eyes—a sparkle of anger, perhaps, although she supposed it was remotely possible it might have been humor.
But whatever it had been, it went almost as fast as it had come, and he snorted. “Bravery might be one word for it,” he said. -“Foolishness—or perhaps even stupidity—might be others, though, don’t you think?” “They might,” she acknowledged. “In the meantime, however, Milord, I have to wonder if keeping a traveler standing in the courtyard is the usual courtesy of Lorham.” “Under normal circumstances, no,” he said coolly. “On the other hand, I trust you will concede that women claiming to be knights and champions of the gods aren’t exactly normal travelers.” “On the Wind Plain, perhaps,” Kaeritha replied with matching coolness, and, for the first time, he flushed.
But he wasn’t prepared to surrender the point quite yet. “That’s as may be, Milady,” he told her, “but at the moment, you’re on the Wind Plain, and here what you claim to be is not simply unusual, but unheard of.
Under the circumstances, I hope you’ll not find me unduly discourteous if I request some proof that you are indeed who and what you say you are.” He smiled again. “Surely, the Order of Tomanāk would prefer that people be cautious about accepting anyone’s unsubstantiated claim to be one of His champions.” — “The Hundred doesn’t ‘just let’ people get a pop in past her guard,” Soumeta told her. “I won’t say you didn’t have the element of surprise on your side, but you’re quick, Leeana.
Very quick.” She considered the younger woman appraisingly. “I think you could work out very well in the Guard after you’ve completed your probationary period.” Leeana looked up, certain Soumeta was teasing.
But the older war maid’s expression was completely serious. “Oh, I don’t think—” Leeana began, then stopped herself, suddenly aware that she didn’t have any idea what she wanted to say. The last thing she’d ever wanted to be was some sort of female warrior.
Not out of any sort of physical fear, but because it had simply never occurred to her that she might.
And, she added honestly, because the fact was that the thought of hurting other people frightened her much more than the thought of being hurt herself.
Nor did she cherish many illusions about the “glory” of combat.
She was the daughter and granddaughter of -warriors—heir of a tradition of women who’d sent generation after generation of husbands and sons off to war . . .
And all too often never gotten them home again.
The notion of charging into battle held very little allure for Leeana Hanathafressa. Yet the truth was that she’d discovered she was one of those cheerful lunatics who actually enjoyed physical exercise.
Not only that, but she found a strange, obscure, but solid enjoyment in the challenge of Hundred Ravlahn’s instruction.
They were working almost entirely without weapons at the moment, but she’d also discovered that she was looking forward to the day that that changed. And, she thought, there really are some things important enough to fight for. “Glory” might not be one of them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. “Well, it’s not as if you have to make up your mind tomorrow,” Soumeta pointed out. “For that matter, it’s not as if Five Hundred Ermath was going to invite you to take over her duties next week!” “I’m sure she’ll wait at least, oh, a month or two,” Tharnha agreed with a laugh, and Leeana had to grin back. “But aside from your physical training,” Soumeta continued, “how are you settling in, Leeana?” “Better than I expected,” Leeana admitted. “It must have been hard, coming from your family,” Tharnha murmured, “I imagine it’s hard coming from any family,” Leeana said, and kicked herself mentally as she heard the edge of chill which had crept into her voice. “Tharnha isn’t exactly the most tactful person in the world,” Soumeta observed with a grin, and gave the dark-haired war maid a friendly clout on the back of her head.
Then the blonde looked back at Leeana. “Still, she didn’t say anything the rest of us haven’t thought, I suppose.
In fact, we’re all wondering about why you came and whether or not you’re glad you did.” She cocked her head, gazing thoughtfully at Leeana. “You have to admit, Leeana—we don’t exactly see the heir of a baron wandering around in a chari and yathu every day!” “Well, no.
I guess not,” Leeana said, then shrugged and looked at Tharnha. “I’m sorry if I sounded offended or something, Tharnha.
It’s just sort of a sore point with me.” “Where we came from and why is a ‘sore point’ for a lot of us,” Tharnha agreed. “And I should have kept my big mouth shut about it.” “Well, yes,” Eramis agreed. “But like Soumeta says, we’re all being eaten to death by little bugs trying not to ask you, Leeana.” She flashed a smile at the younger woman. “I mean, if you tell us to shut up and mind our own business, we will, of course.
But you have to know we’ll go right on wondering, whatever you say.” She waved both hands over her head. “We shouldn’t, but we’re only human, you know!” “Yes, I suppose I do,” Leeana sighed.
She considered it for a few seconds, frowning down into the water of her tub, then sighed. “Let me put it this way.
I didn’t leave my family because of anything they did, all right? It was a political—” She paused. “My father received an offer for me—one I didn’t want to accept.” She made a face. “No one would have wanted to accept it, actually.
Father wouldn’t have made me, but there would have been a lot of political pressure on him to accept it, or something like it.
So I decided I’d rather be a war maid.” She considered that for a few seconds, frowning, and decided it was accurate enough to go on with. “As for whether or not I’m glad I came, ask me again in a month or so! I should have at least caught my breath by then.” Soumeta laughed, and both of the other war maids with her chuckled. “I don’t think it’ll take that long,” Soumeta said. “You seem to be adjusting better than most candidates do.
And I hear you’ve already found some extra work to help pay for your horse?” “And what a horse!” Tharnha said, rolling her eyes in appreciative envy. “Well, yes,” Leeana admitted a bit uncomfortably, remembering Mayor Yalith’s warnings about resentment from other war maids. “I envy you the horse,” Soumeta said, as if she’d read Leeana’s mind, “but I definitely don’t envy you all the extra work!” “Of course you don’t!” Eramis snickered teasingly. “It would cut into your . . .
Social calendar.” “You can just leave my social calendar out of this, Mistress Gossip,” Soumeta told her with a mock–serious glower. “Why? It’s not as if everybody in Kalatha doesn’t know all about your red-hot sex life, Soumeta.” Tharnha rolled her eyes again, as enviously as she had over Leeana’s possession of Boots. “Well,” Soumeta acknowledged a bit complacently, “I do try to do my bit to balance the scales.” “Balance the scales?” Leeana blushed as the question popped out of her, apparently of its own volition, and Soumeta’s eyes swung lazily back to her.
She hadn’t intended to say a single word, she told herself furiously.
What other people did with their own lives was their business, not hers! But, still . . . “Sure,” Soumeta said, after a moment or two during which she seemed to find Leeana’s blush enormously entertaining. “Think of all the years and years and years men have been chasing after women like we were mares in season and they were all stallions in rut.
Of course, if we ever let any of them catch us—outside a nice, legal marriage bed, at least—then we were the ‘loose women’—” she made what Leeana considered was a fairly obvious decision not to use a few other, cruder terms “—for opening our legs for them.
And Lillinara help us if we actually got pregnant without a wedding bracelet!” She rolled her eyes theatrically and her friends laughed, but there was an undeniable flicker of anger under the humor in Soumeta’s voice, and the others’ laughter had a hard edge. “Given how long that’s been going on,” Soumeta continued after a moment, “I figure it’s time we started evening things up a little.
I think we ought to be chasing them for a change.
And if one of them decides he wants to spend an evening cozying up to me, well fine.
But if he thinks he’s going to nail me down like a good, obedient little girl afterwards, he’s got another thought or two coming.
Funny how few of them seem to realize it’s going to be that way, though.
And it may show a nasty streak, but I have to admit, I sort of like looking back over my shoulder to watch their faces when they realize I mean ‘No’ and walk away wiggling my sweet arse at them.” She’d watched Leeana’s face while she spoke, and the younger woman had the distinct impression Soumeta was gauging her reaction carefully.
But was that because Leeana was younger, and Soumeta wanted to see how sheltered her pre-Kalatha existence had truly been? Or was there another reason? Leeana felt a sudden urge to look at Garlahna and see how she was reacting to the conversation, but she decided that wouldn’t be a good idea.
So, instead, she shrugged. “I don’t think that’s something I’m going to have to worry about for a while,” she said lightly. “I’ve got my probation to complete, and Erlis and Ravlahn waiting to work my backside off while I do it.
Between that, chores, working for Theretha, and mucking out Boots’ stall—oh! and helping Lanitha at the school, too!—I’m not going to have enough time to eat and sleep by myself, much less with anyone else!” “But it’s such a waste to actually sleep with someone when there are so many other interesting things you could be doing,” Soumeta said with a wicked smile, then laughed at Leeana’s expression. “Sorry! I didn’t meant to tease you.
And I think you’re probably right about how much free time you’re likely to have, at least for the next few weeks.
But this is something you’re going to have to think about sooner or later, you know, Leeana,” she went on in a more serious tone. “You’re a war maid now—or you will be, when you finish your probation, anyway—and that means the decisions will be yours.
Not your father’s, or your family’s, or anyone else’s: yours.
That’s the reason most of us became war maids in the first place, to make those decisions for ourselves.” “I know,” Leeana agreed, remembering her first day’s conversation with Johlana. “And it’s the fact that we want to make them which pisses off people like Trisu of Lorham,” Eramis said darkly. “Among other things,” Soumeta agreed, still looking at Leeana. “But there’s more to it in his case, too, Eramis.
You know how hard he’s been pushing us about everything ever since he inherited the title.
Of course he resents the fact that we don’t all ask ‘How high?’ any time he says ‘Jump!’ But he’s after more than just changing that.” She glowered. “He’s one of those bastards who wants to turn the clock back two or three hundred years and just pretend the war maids never existed.
That we never had a charter at all.
And until someone kicks him right in those great big balls he’s so proud of having, he’s going to go right on pushing, and pushing, and pushing until we give him what he damned well wants or—” She stopped abruptly and gave her head a short, angry shake that sloshed water over the lip of her tub. “Sorry, Leeana,” she said after a heartbeat or two, with a smile that looked almost natural. “Didn’t mean to climb up on my personal hobbyhorse.
It just really pisses me off to see someone like him pushing us around—again!—as if we were all still meek little female mice living in a world full of male cats.
Or obedient little puppets waiting till they get around to coming home and hauling us off to bed by our hair! Well, we’re not, and it’s time someone pointed that out to him . . .
And all the men like him.” “I’m sure D—” It was Leeana’s turn to stop herself short.
Dame Kaeritha hadn’t told her she was free to discuss the mission which had brought the knight to Kalatha in the first place.
She hadn’t told her she wasn’t free to do so, either, of course, but a champion’s business was a champion’s business, not a subject for bathhouse gossiping. “I’m sure Mayor Yalith and the Town Council know what they’re doing,” she said instead, and hid a mental wince.
What she’d just said was probably true enough, but it sounded like the sort of fatuous thing a schoolgirl without two thoughts to rub together would have said. “Hmph!” Soumeta snorted, flouncing in the water. “Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t.
Well, at least some of them do, I’m sure,” she corrected herself. “But this is a war maid free-town, you know.
We all get a voice—and a vote—when it comes to deciding what we should be doing.
And if this keeps up, Trisu may just find his precious claims starting something he won’t like the finish of!” “And about time, too,” Tharnha muttered. “In a lot of ways,” Eramis agreed, then stretched and yawned elaborately.
The motion arched her spine and brought her shapely bosom free of the water, and she preened like a cat, with a shameless sensuality which Leeana had never before encountered. “I think you’re right about who should be chasing who, too, Soumeta,” she said lazily. “Let’s get what we want from them and let them have the broken hearts for a change.” “Hah! Broken something, anyway,” Tharnha agreed with a chuckle. “Well, I’m already doing my bit,” Soumeta reminded her with a predatory smile. “But whether or not I can keep on doing it depends on whether or not interfering bastards like Trisu can squeeze us all back into their little toy boxes and lock us up there.
And I, for one, plan on chopping a few of them up for dog meat before they manage to do that.” “That’s sort of what the Voice said at the Temple when I was at Quaysar last fall,” Tharnha said.
Everyone looked at her, and she shrugged just a little defensively. “Well, she did!” she insisted. Leeana blinked.
She’d heard of the Temple of -Lillinara at Quaysar, though she’d never been there.
But she’d never heard of a Voice getting involved in secular affairs unless the very lives of women were involved and the situation was close to desperate. “The Voice said we should stand up to Lord Trisu more strongly?” Garlahna said in a voice which showed she’d found the idea as disturbing as Leeana had. “Not in so many words,” Tharnha admitted. “But she did say she was concerned.
That the Mother’s daughters should always oppose and fight people who try to make all women victims, and who else do you think she could’ve been talking about right now?” “Voices don’t send people off to war, Tharnha,” Soumeta said. “Or not very often, anyway.
She probably just meant we should stand our ground.” The guardswoman snorted. “A Voice can’t go around telling us to push back even harder than he’s pushing us, whatever she might want to say.
Not without provoking all kinds of complaints from every lord warden—every male lord warden—in the Kingdom, anyway.
Which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good idea, of course.
Just that a Voice is a little too visible to tell people that.” “Maybe not, Soumeta,” Eramis said, “but you know the Voice thinks we shouldn’t let anyone push us around the way we always have before.
You know that.” “I never said she didn’t,” Soumeta replied. “I just said she has to be careful about any official position she takes because of who she is.
If you want me to admit she’s given her support to people like Maretha and her supporters on the Town Council, then I will.
I’m just saying that she’s smart enough and subtle enough to do it in ways that aren’t going to drag her, the temple, or the Mother into open conflict with a lord warden.” “You’re probably right,” Tharnha agreed.
She didn’t sound as if she really did agree, but she smiled and shrugged anyway. — “He showed you how to do it?” “Oh, aye,” Bahzell said in a casual, offhand sort of tone belied by the twinkle in his eye. “It’s not so very difficult, once you’ve been shown the way of it.” “Which is?” Brandark was practically quivering with the burning curiosity of a scholar, and Bahzell smiled. “Little man, your nose is all a-twitch with questions, and isn’t that just a frightening thing to see when a man’s so proud and fine a nose to twitch about?” Brandark shook a fist ferociously and took a stride towards him, and the Horse Stealer held up his hands in mock terror. “Now, don’t you be after offering violence to a mild-mannered fellow like myself!” he scolded.
Brandark growled something under his breath, and Bahzell laughed. “Aren’t you after being just the most predictable fellow in the world when a man’s after knowing the right lever to pull?” he asked with a smile. “But I’d not like you to burst, or do yourself a mischief, so, in answer to your question, it’s not so very different from healing a wound or an illness.” “You mean you act as Tomanāk’s channel?” “In a manner of speaking.
It’s not just himself—there’s after being a mite of me in there, as well—but that’s the bones of it.
It’s like . . .
Like healing a place, not a person.
I’ll not say as how it’s a protection strong enough to be after standing against all the forces of hell, but it’s set a circle about Lord Edinghas’ home manor as nothing short of Krahana herself is going to want to be crossing.
Yet it’s not something I can be taking with us when we go, Brandark.
And it won’t be after lasting forever once I leave.” “So that’s why you were willing to promise Kelthys you’d wait,” Brandark said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Aye.” Bahzell agreed. “It was in my mind as how Krahana’s lot would be after coming here, to be finishing what they’d once begun.
And, truth to tell, I was minded to meet them here, with the other lads from the Order and himself’s protections in place to be giving us an edge.
But now I’m thinking that if they’d been minded to be coming this way, we’d already have been after seeing them.” He shrugged, then frowned. “And since it seems they’ll not be coming here, then it’s no choice I have but to be going there.” “And once we ride out of Warm Springs, we’ll be leaving its protection behind us,” Brandark said, nodding slowly. “That’s why you’re so unhappy you didn’t try to stop Kelthys from calling in his wind riders after all.” “Aye, for it’s not just a matter of the protections here that we’ll be leaving behind,” Bahzell said somberly. “I’ve no way of knowing just what sort of ‘champion’ Krahana may have been after sending here.
For aught I know whoever—or whatever—he is, he may have been after summoning up his own version of a protected circle from her.
And if that’s the way of it, Brandark, then I’ve no way at all, at all, of knowing what those as try to cross it may find themselves facing.” “I understand that, Bahzell,” Brandark said quietly. “But you have to understand that there’s not a one of us—not me, not the Order’s lads, and not Kelthys and his wind riders—who hasn’t thought long and hard about this.
You may not know what we’ll find, and we certainly can’t know, until we’ve done it.
But it’s not as if all of us don’t know that going in.” “Brandark, this is nothing a man should be facing out of friendship,” Bahzell said, speaking just as quietly as Brandark. “Tomanāk knows I’ve never had a friend so close as you’ve somehow gotten.
I’ll not embarrass either of us by pounding what that friendship’s after meaning to me into the ground.
But this I will be telling you, Brandark Brandarkson—there’s naught in this world I’m wanting less than to see you riding north beside me.” “I’m sorry to hear that,” Brandark said levelly, “because you don’t have much choice about it.” “Brandark—” “Just what makes you believe you have the right to tell me, or anyone else—including Kelthys and the other wind riders—what we have the right to face? You’re a champion of Tomanāk, Bahzell.
We all know that.
And we all know that facing Krahana is the sort of challenge Tomanāk chooses His champions to confront.
We know the brunt of it is going to fall on you and the other lads of the Order, and that nothing we can do will change that.
And so what?” “And so it’s not making any sense at all, at all, for the lot of you to be running up against the like of Krahana.
If Hurthang and Gharnal and I have it to do, then what’s the sense in risking others alongside us?” “Are you going to try to tell Walsharno that he can’t go along? If so, then you’ve just spent the last four days wearing the seat out of your breeches and pounding your arse flat for nothing!” “Well, as to that,” Bahzell began, “Walsharno is after—” “Don’t start any circumlocutions with me, Bahzell Bahnakson! You’re not leaving him behind because you know he wouldn’t stay, whatever you tried to insist upon.
And, in the second place, because the two of you each know exactly what the other is thinking and feeling—really thinking and feeling.” The shorter hradani held his massive friend’s eye almost defiantly in the lamplight streaming out of the manor house windows to throw their black shadows across the veranda.
And this time, it was Bahzell who looked away. “You know he wants to go . . .
And it’s not just because the two of you have bonded with one another.
He wants to go because he hates and despises and loathes Krahana as much as any of us.
Because he wants vengeance for the herd he grew up in before he left for the Bear River herd.
And because it’s his right—his right, Bahzell—to choose to fight evil when he sees it. “Well, that’s my right, too.
And the right of the other coursers, and of the other wind riders.
All that good men have to do to allow the Dark to triumph is to do nothing to stop it when they find it before them.” Brandark stopped speaking and drew a deep breath, then chuckled with something approaching his normal insouciance. — “I realize there are already contingency plans in place to deal with that possibility,” he said.
Actually, he knew there were supposed to be contingency plans in place, but he had a less than lively faith that Dahlaha had really given them the attention they required. “Nonetheless, I thought it would be worth my time to drop in on you to remind you that they might be needed.
And,” he held her eyes very steadily, “to suggest that They might feel that it was time you double-checked your plans . . .
Just in case.” Chapter Thirty-Five “Welcome back to Kalatha, Dame Kaeritha.” Mayor Yalith’s voice was much warmer than it had been the first time Kaeritha entered her office, and her smile was broad. “How may we serve you this time?” “Actually, I’m more or less just passing through on my way to Quaysar,” Kaeritha replied, watching the mayor’s expression with carefully hidden attentiveness. “I’ve spoken to you, and to Lord Trisu.
Now I think it would be just as well for me to speak to the Voice and get her perspective on the disputes between your town and Trisu.
Not to mention her temple’s own . . .
Difficulties with him.” It seemed to her watchful eyes that Yalith’s quick nod of approval for her last comment was automatic, almost unconscious. “I hadn’t realized from our previous discussion that she was also the secular head of the Quaysar community.
The fact that she is means she’s probably had much more direct contact with him than I’d previously assumed.” “I’m sure she has,” Yalith said a bit sourly. “I doubt she’s enjoyed it any more than I have, though.” The mayor shook her head. “I realize that the Voice is Lillinara’s personal servant, but it would take a saint, not merely a priestess, to endure that man as her liege.” “He can certainly be one of the most irritating people I’ve ever met,” Kaeritha acknowledged even as she mentally filed away Yalith’s tone and body language.
Clearly, the mayor, at least, had no reservations about the Voice.
Kaeritha wished the same were true for her. “If he’s irritating to a visiting champion of Tomanāk, you can probably begin to imagine how ‘irritating’ he can be as a permanent, inescapable neighbor!” The mayor shook her head again, with a grimace. “I doubt that proximity makes him any easier to deal with, anyway,” Kaeritha agreed.
The mayor snorted a laugh and waved for Kaeritha to take one of the chairs facing her desk. The knight seated herself in the indicated chair and leaned back, crossing her legs. “Before I move on to Quaysar,” she said in a tone which was as everyday-sounding as she could keep it, “I wonder if you could tell me a little more about the Voice.” Yalith’s eyebrows rose, and Kaeritha shrugged. “I understand she’s almost as new to her office as Trisu is to his lord wardenship,” she explained, “and I’d like to have a little bit better feel for her position and personality before I walk into her temple and start asking questions some priestesses might consider impertinent or even insulting.
Especially coming from a champion of someone else’s god.” “I see.” Yalith rested her elbows on the arms of her chair and leaned back comfortably, steepling her fingers under her chin.
She pursed her lips for several seconds, clearly marshaling her thoughts, but Kaeritha saw no evidence of any uneasiness or misgivings. “The present Voice is younger than the last one,” the mayor said finally. “To be honest, when I first met her, I thought she might be too young for the post, but I was wrong.
Now that she’s been in it for a while, and I’ve had a chance to see her in action, as it were, I think she may seem to be younger than she truly is.” “You do? Why?” Kaeritha asked. “She’s an extraordinarily attractive woman, Dame Kaeritha, but she has one of those faces that will look young until she’s at least eighty.” The mayor smiled. “When I was younger myself, I would have cheerfully traded two or three fingers from my left hand for her bone structure and coloring.
Now I just envy them.” “Oh.” Kaeritha smiled back. “One of those.” “Definitely one of those,” Yalith agreed.
Then she shook her head. “But she doesn’t really seem aware of it herself,” the mayor continued more seriously. “I sometimes wonder if her appearance was an obstacle for her in her pursuit of her calling, but her vocation is obvious once you’ve spent even a very few minutes with her.
There’s a . . .
A presence to her I’ve never experienced with any other Voice.
Once you’ve met her, I think you’ll understand why the Church assigned her to Quaysar.” “I’m sure I will,” Kaeritha replied. “At the same time, Mayor, a spiritual vocation doesn’t always translate into effectiveness when it comes to managing the more mundane affairs of a temple.
I’d imagine that would be even more the case for a priestess who’s also a mayor.
How would you evaluate her in that regard?” “I’ve only been to Quaysar myself once since she became Voice there,” Yalith said. “She’s visited us here four times since then, but most of the contact between us has been through her handmaidens.
So my impressions of her abilities as an administrator are all secondhand, as it were.” She arched an eyebrow, and Kaeritha nodded her understanding of the qualifier. “Well, having said that,” the mayor continued, “I would have to say she seems to be at least as efficient and effective as her predecessor was, which is pretty high praise all by itself.
I certainly haven’t heard about any internal problems, at any rate.
And given my own experiences, I can’t say the difficulties she’s apparently had with Trisu of Lorham give me any cause to question her ability to work comfortably with an unprejudiced secular lord.” “I see.” Kaeritha considered that for a moment, then cocked her head to one side. “Given what you’ve said about how relatively little direct contact you’ve had with her, I suppose that’s probably as definitive an opinion as anyone could expect you to have formed.
Did you know the previous Voice better than that?” “Oh, yes!” Yalith smiled.
It was a broad smile, warm, yet touched with sadness. “The old Voice came from right here in Kalatha.
She was born here, actually, and I knew her long before she heard Lillinara’s call.
In fact, we grew up together.” “You did? Somehow, I had the impression she was older than that.” “Old? Shandra?” Yalith snorted, then grimaced. “I suppose I shouldn’t call her that.
I know any Voice gives up her old name and takes a new one in religion.
But she was actually a year or two younger than I was, and I’ll always think of her as the blond-haired kid who insisted on tagging along when I went fishing in the river.” “So she was actually younger than you,” Kaeritha mused. “And from your manner and tone, she sounds as if she were an extraordinary person.” “Indeed she was,” Yalith said softly. “How did she come to die?” Kaeritha asked. “Because I thought she was older than she was, I’d simply assumed it was old age, or perhaps some illness.
But if she was as young as you are . . .” “No one is really sure,” Yalith sighed. “Oh, it was an illness, but it came on extraordinarily suddenly, and I think it took her and her physicians by surprise because she’d always been so healthy.
The constitution of a courser, she always used to joke with me when we were girls.” She shook her head sadly. “But that wasn’t enough this time.
She became ill one day, and she was gone less than three days later.
I didn’t even realize she was seriously ill in time to get to Quaysar to tell her goodbye.” “I’m sorry for your loss,” Kaeritha said softly.
Even sorrier than you can guess, given what I’m beginning to suspect, she added silently to herself. “But you’d say you’re pleased with the job the new Voice is doing as her successor?” “As pleased as anyone could be after losing someone like Shandra,” Yalith agreed firmly. “We were extremely lucky to have two such strong Voices in succession.
In fact, I think possibly our present Voice may even be better suited to the . . .
Less pleasant aspects of our disputes with Trisu than Shandra would have been.
Her faith is obviously just as deep, but Shandra always shied away from confrontation.
She wasn’t weak, or anything like that, but she preferred finding a consensus or arriving at compromises.
Which is fine, as long as the person on the other side of the dispute is equally willing to be reasonable.
Our present Voice is a bit more willing to remember that she speaks as the Mother’s Voice when it comes to rebuking Her children’s misbehavior.” “So she’s been supportive of Kalatha’s position against Trisu, not simply concerned by his failure to adequately investigate the deaths of her handmaidens?” “Oh, yes.” Yalith nodded emphatically. “She hasn’t made any secret of her feelings in that regard.
In fact, she saw this round coming even before we did.” “She did?” “Yes.
Actually, she preached a sermon about the need to prepare for the coming storm some months before our relations with Trisu really started going into the chamber pot.
I don’t think that she knew what was coming, or she would’ve been more specific, but she clearly sensed that something was about to go wrong in a big way.
Once our . . .
Disagreements with Trisu surfaced, she spoke out strongly about the need for all the Mother’s daughters to be strong and vigilant, and she’s a strong supporter of our decision to stand fast, at least until we get some sort of reasonable offsetting concessions from Trisu in any compromise settlement.
Although she did insist on reviewing the original documents herself before she took any official position.” “She did examine them? Here?” “No, not here.
She was unable to leave Quaysar at the moment, so she sent two of her handmaidens to fetch them back to the temple.” “Just two handmaidens to transport them?” Kaeritha sounded surprised, and Yalith chuckled in harsh understanding. “We’re just as aware as you are of how . . .
Convenient some people might find it for those documents to disappear, Dame Kaeritha.
I sent along an escort of fifteen war maids, and Lanitha went along to care for the records themselves personally.” She shrugged. “But there weren’t any problems.
That time, at least.” “I see.” Kaeritha frowned thoughtfully. “I’m glad you did send an escort, though,” she said. “Just from a purely historical perspective, those documents are priceless.
I imagine the war maids have always seen to it that they were properly looked after whenever they left Kalatha.” “That was the only time they ever have left Kalatha,” Yalith replied. “But I’m sure any of my predecessors would have been just as careful about protecting them.” “Oh, I’m sure they would,” Kaeritha agreed. “I’m sure they would.” * * * “Hello, Dame Kaeritha.” Leeana Bowmaster had changed a great deal.
Or, no, Kaeritha decided.
That conclusion might still be a bit premature.
Her appearance had certainly changed a great deal; it remained to be seen how much the young woman under that appearance had changed. “Hello, Leeana,” the knight replied. “You’re looking good.” “Different, you mean,” Leeana corrected with a smile, almost as if she’d read Kaeritha’s mind. “Well, yes.
But in your case, I think, ‘different’ and ‘good’ may mean the same thing.
And, no, I’m not talking just about outward appearances, young lady.
The last time I saw you, you weren’t exactly the happiest young woman I’d ever seen.” “Oh.” Leeana looked down at her bare toes and actually wiggled them. “I guess maybe you have a point,” she admitted after a moment. The two of them stood on one of the training salle’s covered porches.
The porch’s plank flooring was rough and unfinished under Kaeritha’s boots, and must have felt even more so to Leeana’s bare feet.
But the girl didn’t seem to notice that.
Nor did she appear aware of how the fine garments, rich embroidery, and semiprecious stones of a great baron’s daughter had vanished forever. — That giggle, and the girl’s entire body language, did a great deal to reassure Kaeritha.
Leeana had been called away from self-defense training to speak with Kaeritha, and the war maids’ physical training regimen was as demanding as any Kaeritha herself had ever experienced.
It was certainly more rigorous than anything Leeana had ever experienced before leaving Balthar.
Not that the girl had ever been indolent or lazy.
But the war maids believed in pushing their new recruits—especially the probationary ones—hard.
Not just to make the difference between their old lives and their new ones clear on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, but also as a testing process designed to identify the young women with the potential and mindset to become war maids. The great majority of those who went on to become the war maid community’s warriors would serve as the light infantry, scouts, and guerrillas most Sothōii thought of whenever they thought about war maids at all.
That combat style required speed and stamina more than sheer size or brute strength, and the physical training required to provide those qualities was demanding and unremitting.
It had been Kaeritha’s observation that most people—-including most men, she thought sardonically—didn’t much care to invest the focus and sweat required to maintain that high pitch of physical conditioning. From what she could see so far, it looked as if Leeana was actually enjoying it. “Are you happy, Leeana?” she asked quietly after a moment, and Leeana looked up quickly.
Her smile disappeared, but she met Kaeritha’s eyes steadily. “I don’t know,” she said frankly. “I’ve cried myself to sleep a night or two, if that’s what you’re asking.” Her shoulders moved in what could have been called a shrug if it had been a little stronger. “I can’t say I didn’t expect that, though.
And it’s not because life here in Kalatha is so hard.
I’m running my backside off and working an awful lot harder than I ever did before, and half the time I think I’m about to drop dead of exhaustion.
But I don’t really mind that, either, or the fact that I’m not a baron’s daughter anymore.” She shook her head. “I think the only thing that really hurts is that I’m not legally Father and Mother’s daughter anymore.
Does that make sense?” “Oh, yes, girl,” Kaeritha said softly, and Leeana drew a deep breath. “But aside from missing Mother and Father—and being miserably homesick from time to time—I’m actually enjoying myself.
So far, at least.” Her smile returned. “Ravlahn—she’s the Hundred in charge of physical training—has been running me hard ever since I got here.
Sometimes I just want to stop running long enough to drop dead from exhaustion, but I’m learning things about myself that I never knew before.
Now if only her demands on my time could excuse me from more ‘traditional’ classes.” “Traditional classes?” Kaeritha repeated. “Oh, yes.” Leeana’s smile turned into a wry grin. “I have to admit that I’d hoped running away to the war maids would at least rescue me from the clutches of my tutors.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the war maids require all of their members to be literate, and they ‘strongly encourage’ us to continue with additional education.” She snorted. “Except, in my case, they’ve dragooned me as one of the tutors, instead!” “I see,” Kaeritha said, hiding a smile of her own as she recalled the team of strong horses it had required to drag her into a classroom when she’d been Leeana’s age. “What matters most, though,” Leeana continued quietly, “is that by coming here I’ve done the most important thing.
Father’s enemies can’t use me against him anymore, and I have the chance to be something besides an obedient little mare dropping colts for some fine stallion who completely controls my life.” “Then I’m glad you have the opportunity,” Kaeritha said. “So am I.
Really.” Leeana nodded firmly as if to emphasize the mere words. “Good.” Kaeritha rested one hand lightly on the girl’s shoulder for a moment. “That was what I wanted to know before I leave for Quaysar.” “Quaysar? You’re going to visit the Voice?” Something about the way Leeana asked the question narrowed Kaeritha’s eyes. “Yes.
Why do you ask?” “No reason,” Leeana said, just a bit too quickly. “It’s just—” She broke off, hesitated, then shook her head. “It’s just that I have this . . .
Uncomfortable feeling.” “About what?” Kaeritha was careful to keep any suggestiveness out of her own tone. “About the Voice,” Leeana said in a small voice, as if she were admitting to some heinous fault. “What sort of feeling? For that matter, why do you have any ‘feelings’ about her at all? I didn’t think you’d even met her.” “I haven’t met her,” Leeana admitted. “I guess you could say that what I’ve got is a ‘secondhand feeling.’ But I’ve talked to some of the other war maids about her.
A lot.” “You have?” Kaeritha’s eyes narrowed.
Her discussion with Yalith hadn’t suggested that the Kalatha community was quite as heavily focused on the Voice as Leeana seemed to be implying. “Yes,” the girl said. “And to be honest, Dame Kaeritha, it’s the way they’ve been talking to me about her that worries me most.” “Suppose you explain that,” Kaeritha suggested.
She stepped back and settled her posterior onto the porch’s railing, leaning back against one of the upright roof supports and folding her arms across her chest.
The morning sunlight was warm across her shoulders as she cocked her head. “You know I’m the most ‘nobly born’ person in Kalatha,” Leeana began after a moment, and Kaeritha raised one eyebrow.
The girl saw it and grimaced. “That’s not an ‘oh-what-a-wonderful-person-I-am’ comment, Dame Kaeritha.
What I meant to say is that even though I was only Father’s daughter, not his real heir, I’ve seen a lot more political backbiting and maneuvering than most of the people here have.” — And it was as well that it had, because the grueling pursuit had been even more costly than he’d allowed himself to believe it might.
Captain Steelsaber would not send any more messages for Trianal; he lay somewhere miles behind, with an arrow through the base of his throat, and eight of his troopers lay scattered along the track of their retreat with him.
Nor had Trianal been able to stay out of the fray, whatever Sir Yarran would have preferred.
One of his two saddle quivers was completely empty; the other contained his last five shafts, and at that, he had more arrows than most of his men. The moment had come, he thought, looking back at the irregular lines of horsemen sweeping across the grass behind him.
The sun was sliding down the western sky as the short, northern spring day wound towards twilight.
There was no more than an hour and a half—two hours at the outside—of daylight left.
Long enough for a fight to the finish before darkness let the weaker side escape, but only if the fight began soon. And it would, he told himself grimly.
One way or the other, whether his desperate plan worked or not.
His men’s mounts were stumbling, and their quivers were empty.
They were a beaten force, fleeing at the best pace their stumbling horses could still maintain while the reserve the enemy commander had pulled back and ruthlessly maintained gradually accelerated its pace.
Its horses were scarcely what one could have called fresh, but despite their fatigue, they were far closer to that than the staggering creatures under Trianal’s men, and they were pounding closer with every passing moment. Trianal gazed at them for a moment longer, then sent the stallion back into motion.
The big horse responded with a gallantry that made Trianal want to weep, but there was no time for that.
His tattered survivors’ wavering course was leading them directly towards a shallow river valley. It wasn’t much of a river—little more than a large creek, which normally disappeared entirely at the height of the summer.
For now, it still chattered cheerfully in its shallow, gravel bed, singing with the strength which was the gift of the final rains of spring.
Its valley was at least a bit more impressive than the “river” itself, if not a lot.
It was little more than fifty yards across at its widest, narrower in most places than the ravine they’d followed that morning, but willows and short, brushy trees marked its course, drinking thirstily from the stream.
The slope down into the streambed was shallower on this side, and steeper to the west, and Trianal could almost feel the triumph which suffused their pursuers as they realized what that steeper bank would mean for the exhausted horses they pursued. Assuming that any of Trianal’s men made it to the top of the far bank, they would at least have a long, gradual downslope on the far side.
Not that it was likely any of them would make it up out of the valley before the pursuit caught up with them. Trianal leaned forward into his horse’s mane like a jockey, urging the stallion on with hands and voice, melding with the driving motion of the powerful, straining muscles between his thighs.
Feeling the horse’s gasping fight for air as the stallion’s eyes blurred with exhaustion and he ran his mighty heart out at his rider’s demand. The sky was clear, yet for a moment anyone with the concentration to spare would have sworn that he’d heard thunder.
Then it came again—a dull, rolling, throbbing sound, more sensed than heard . . .
But not imagined.
Never imagined. Trianal looked up, his eyes wide with sudden hope, and then the western bank of the streambed disappeared under a line of galloping horses. * * * Sir Fahlthu didn’t hear the thunder, but he saw it.
Saw the rolling storm of cavalry coming straight at him.
They must have had observers perched up there, waiting, timing the moment perfectly.
He didn’t know exactly how the terrain laid out beyond the river, but he knew it had to break downward to the west.
It was the only way the oncoming troopers in the colors of Balthar and Glanharrow could have gotten their mounts all the way up to a full gallop without being seen. How? he wondered almost calmly.
How did the little bastard get word to them? They’re still an hour’s hard ride from Glanharrow Keep.
How could they possibly get here in time—and with their horses rested this way? And the fact that those horses were rested was painfully obvious as the charging horsemen came down the bank like an earthquake.
The shallow water of the stream exploded in white wings of spray under the driving hooves of their mounts, bugles sang wild and fierce, sounding the charge over the deep, hungry bay of voices shouting Trianal’s name like a battle cry, and Fahlthu’s pursuit slithered to a halt in broken bits and pieces. Some of his men turned in a vain effort to flee back to the east, towards the illusory sanctuary of the Bogs.
But they would never reach the safety of the swamps, and Fahlthu knew it.
The tables had just been brutally reversed.
However much fresher than Trianal’s staggering mounts his horses might have been, they were nowhere near so fresh as the rested, galloping warhorses coming towards them.
Warhorses under vengeful troopers who were also fresh . . .
And who had full quivers. He stared at his company’s onrushing doom, watching the gryphons at its head—blue and white of Balthar, and the gray of Glanharrow—writhe and dance, and despair was bitter in his mouth.
There was no point trying to surrender his men, not after the way they’d massacred Trianal’s wounded, and he knew it.
But it was impossible to escape that thunderous, vengeful wave, either, and he loosened his saber in its sheath. He was still staring at the dancing gryphons when the arbalest bolt smashed through the backplate of his cuirass and shattered his spine. * * * Darnas Warshoe watched from his motionless warhorse as Fahlthu tumbled from the saddle.
He grimaced in satisfaction, then dropped the heavy arbalest, wheeled his horse, and went racing away.
He would miss the weapon, and only its long range had let him take the shot from so far behind the Golden Vale captain, but his horse would miss its weight even more, and at this particular moment, that was what mattered.
Warshoe was far enough back to have an excellent chance of staying ahead of the pursuit until darkness, especially if overrunning the rest of Fahlthu’s men slowed it up a bit. He might have to run his horse to death to do it, he reflected philosophically, but new horses were easier to find than new heads. * * * Trianal sobbed for breath as the rolling-thunder onslaught crashed past him.
It seemed in that moment as if there were literally thousands of armsmen in Balthar’s blue and white and Glanharrow’s gray.
There weren’t, of course.
There were only the other six troops he’d brought from Hill Guard and the seven more in Lord Festian’s service.
Only thirteen troops—scarcely two hundred and sixty men—all told.
But they might as well have been a thousand as their fresh, tight formation smashed into the men who’d pursued Trianal for so long behind a hurricane of arrows. “We did it!” It took him a moment to realize that that exultant scream of triumph had come from his own throat, and when he did, his face blazed with humiliation.
But even as he cursed the outburst as a sign of his own youthful lack of maturity, he heard someone laughing uproariously.
He turned his head with a glare, and found himself face to face with Sir Yarran.
Somehow, the older knight had managed—along with Trianal’s standard-bearer and bugler—to cling to Trianal like a cocklebur, and now his face wore an enormous grin. “Aye, we did, lad—you did.” Yarran shook his head. “Truth to tell, lad—I mean, Milord—I thought you’d maybe one chance in three of pulling it off.
But you did.
You actually did!” Yes, I did—we did, Trianal thought, gazing back the way they’d come at the swirling cloud of death as the relief force rampaged through their exhausted pursuers like a battering ram.
He brought the stallion down from a hard gallop to a walk, and he could hear bugles, screams, even the crash and clash of steel. We did it.
But we only managed it because of the carrier pigeons, and my own estimate of the odds was lower than yours, Yarran.
Gods, how I wish there’d been some way for Lord Festian to tell us he’d received the message in time! “Let’s get the men together and the horses cooled, Sir Yarran,” he said, meeting his mentor’s eyes, and the older man nodded with almost paternal pride. “Aye, Milord,” he said. “Let’s be doing that.” — “Oh, aye, you might be saying that,” Bahzell assured him, still clinging to the cantle like grim death, just in case.
It seemed the most natural thing in the world to do, although he’d never imagined he might be that close to another living creature.
He understood now why every wind rider called every other wind rider “brother,” regardless of birth or rank, for anyone who had shared the intensity of communication with a courser had been forever set apart. In Bahzell’s case, his conversations with Tomanāk had, in an odd sort of way, provided a kind of preliminary training for the bond with Walsharno.
It wasn’t the same, of course, and yet there were undeniable similarities.
More importantly, perhaps, Tomanāk had accustomed Bahzell to the idea that he wouldn’t always be alone inside his own skull.
He couldn’t help it as he tasted the stallion’s vibrant personality and strength and felt the way they fused with his own.
He knew how desperate a struggle lay before them, yet he had never felt more magnificently alive, except perhaps, in a very different way, in those rare moments when a portion of Tomanāk’s power and personality flowed through him.
And with that sense of shared strength and power came the knowledge, the absolute certainty, that he would never face this danger—or any danger, any loss—alone again. “So, you’re ready, Longshanks,” a familiar voice observed dryly as Walsharno carried him out of the stable yard. Bahzell looked across at Brandark, whose warhorse looked oddly shrunken, almost toylike, from the Horse Stealer’s perch.
Even he wasn’t accustomed to looking down at a warhorse. “Aye, so I am, if you’re all still after being daft enough to be coming along,” he said, his eyes sweeping over the others assembled with Brandark. “We are,” Kelthys said before Brandark could reply, speaking for himself and the fourteen wind riders who had arrived in Warm Springs over the last two days.
Hurthang, Gharnal, and the other members of the Order didn’t bother with even that much.
They only looked at Bahzell, waiting, and beyond them were the thirteen courser stallions who had accompanied Walsharno, Kelthys, and Walasfro to Warm Springs. “Well then,” he said, and Walsharno turned without another word from him and headed away from Warm Springs along the track the Warm Springs herd had taken on its doomed journey north. * * * “I don’t suppose,” Brandark said, as his horse trotted along beside Walsharno, looking like a yearling frisking beside its sire, “that you’ve developed a more, ah, sophisticated campaign plan since you and I last talked?” Walsharno said.
Aside from that, I’ve no more information than what I’ve already shared with the lot of you.” “Oh, joy,” Brandark murmured, and Bahzell gave a short, harsh laugh. “You were the one as wanted to come along, my lad,” he pointed out. “Not the only one, Milord Champion,” Sir Kelthys said from Bahzell’s other side, and the Horse Stealer turned to look at the Sothōii knight who had become his wind brother. “Aye, it did seem as how there’d been a sudden shortage of brains in Warm Springs,” Bahzell agreed affably. “And then,” he continued, looking past Kelthys to the other fourteen wind riders and coursers, “not content, you had to be after importing more idiots fool enough for such as this.” Most of the other wind riders chuckled, but two or three of them looked less than amused, and one of them glowered as if on the brink of an angry retort.
But then his expression blanked, and he looked away quickly. Bahzell hid a mental snort.
The wind riders who’d funneled into Warm Springs hadn’t known what to expect when they arrived.
Certainly none of them had been prepared for the bizarre notion of a hradani wind rider.
All of them, and their coursers, had reacted with incredulity, and for some of them, that initial reaction had been followed by disbelief, anger, and even outright rejection. It wasn’t the first time since becoming a champion of Tomanāk that Bahzell had experienced that sort of response.
And, he admitted, this time there was more excuse for it than usual.
Unlike all too many he’d met in the Empire of the Axe and the human-dominated Border Kingdoms along its frontiers, the Sothōii—and coursers—had an actual history of mutual slaughter with the hradani.
He could handle and allow for hatred better when there was some basis besides ignorant bigotry behind it. And, fortunately, there was another difference this time, as well—Walsharno, his sister, and the other surviving Warm Springs coursers. — Warlamp looked skeptical, but before he could say anything else, Brandark spoke up.
The Bloody Sword’s normal insouciance was absent, and his voice was very serious. “Bahzell’s right, Shalsan,” he said. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but I’ve seen this before, when he went hunting for Sharnā.
If Bahzell Bahnakson tells you he knows where to find the Dark, take his word for it.
He does.” “Well,” Warlamp said after a moment, “I suppose that’s an end to the matter, then.” He rolled his shoulders, like a man feeling a chill breeze explore his spine, then shrugged. “It’s just that it doesn’t feel right to not have scouts out when we know the enemy’s waiting up ahead somewhere.” “No more it does,” Bahzell agreed. “But this isn’t the sort of enemy as you’re after being used to hunting, Shalsan.” * * * “They come, Master.” The being who had once been a man named Jerghar Sholdan opened his eyes and sat up at the sound of the servile voice.
He hadn’t really been asleep, of course—he hadn’t needed sleep in a long, long time—but it took him a moment to brush aside the memory of the dark, windy void where he had drifted amid tongues of invisible black flame on the wings of a roaring tempest.
There was a Presence somewhere beyond those walls of icy fire, a Name lost in the bellow of the battering wind.
He knew both of them, and worshiped them, yet the very thought of them simultaneously filled him with hatred and fear. But that, too, had been true for a very long time, he reminded himself, the tip of his tongue teasing gently at the razor-sharp canines which were the outward indication of what he had become.
And hatred and fear, like the knowledge of his own enslavement, were paltry prices to pay for immortality and the power that sustained it. Although, he admitted to himself, very quietly, in the most deeply hidden recesses of his mind, there were times . . . “Where?” he demanded harshly. “Still south,” the creature which had roused him said obsequiously. “Far south, but coming!” It rubbed its misshapen paws together, bobbing its head and fawning before him, silhouetted against the sunlight outside the cave.
Jerghar regarded it with contempt, yet there was more than a trace of fear under the contempt.
Not of the creature, but of the similarity, the parallel, between them which all his denial could not erase. The shardohn’s long, slick tongue flicked out like a wet, black serpent to lick its piglike tusks, and it crouched still lower as it felt his eyes upon it. “Please, Master,” it whined, and he reached down and cuffed it viciously as his edge of fear spawned anger.
That blow would have shattered human bone, but the shardohn only squealed—in fear, more than in pain—and fell onto its side, raising its wings to cover its head.
Jerghar drew back his hand to strike it again, then let his arm fall to his side. “Get up,” he snarled, and the shardohn scrambled to its feet and stood hunched into a crouch before him, staring down and refusing to meet his eyes. “Where ‘south’ are they?” he growled, and the creature seemed to fold in on itself.
It whimpered, and Jerghar forced himself not to cuff it yet again.
It was hard, but he reminded himself of its limitations.
Night and darkness were the province of Krahana and her creatures.
Jerghar himself could tolerate the light, although direct sunlight was painful and remained mildly disorienting, despite the charm Varnaythus had provided to protect him against that weakness and prevent others from noticing his oddly elongated teeth.
But the shardohns were far more strongly affected than he, and even when they were shielded from the sun itself, daylight made them clumsy and slow . . .
And stupid. “Tell me the place at which they are located now,” he said, speaking very slowly and distinctly, and the shardohn visibly perked up, as if the question had finally been rendered down into words it could understand. “Perhaps one league south of where we feasted on horses, Master,” it said eagerly, reaching out one taloned paw as if to touch his knee.
It thought better of the familiarity and jerked its hand back, and Jerghar grunted in grudging approval. “Very well,” he said after a moment. “Rejoin your pack.
I’ll summon you when I require you.” “Yes, Master—yes!” the shardohn babbled, bobbing and bowing, and then scurried off, scuttling deeper into the shadows of the cave.
Jerghar watched it go, then settled down on an outthrust of rock to think. If the shardohn’s report was accurate—which it probably was—then he still had at least three or four hours before Bahzell could arrive.
Long enough for the sun to set. His lip curled at that thought, yet even so, he wished he had better tools with which to work.
In their own element, under the cover of darkness, shardohns were far less stupid than the one which had just reported to him might suggest.
They were also fearsome opponents for any mortal creature, armed with envenomed claws and tusks, and able to shift into the forms of wolves.
They could not be “killed” by most mortal means, and it was extraordinarily difficult even to destroy their physical bodies.
Worst of all, from the perspective of living foes, they partook of the essence of their mistress, Krahana.
They were virtual extensions of Her—separate and infinitely weaker, true, yet a portion of whatever they fed upon also fed Her.
Those they pulled down they devoured, and they did not settle for feasting upon flesh, bone, and blood alone. Yet for all that, they were paltry creatures, individually, compared to the greater demons Sharnā controlled.
Indeed, Jerghar often thought that their greatest value was as food themselves.
The essence which filled them was far less sweet and satisfying than the uncorrupted life force of mortals, but it could sustain one like Jerghar.
And like all of Krahana’s creatures, the lesser existed to be feasted upon by the greater at need . . .
Or even upon a whim. He considered summoning the messenger back to him, pictured the moment his fangs sank into the creature’s noisome flesh and the essence of its being flowed into him like the very elixir of life.
But then he put the thought firmly aside.
He would need all the shardohns he had, and he suspected he would wish he had more of them, before this night was done.
Besides, the temptation reminded him that should he fail in this mission, there were those higher than he in Krahana’s hierarchy and that his life would taste far sweeter to them than a mere shardohn would to him. No, it was time to concentrate upon what his Lady demanded of him. He closed his eyes again, longing to return to the comforting darkness of the void until the sun blazing outside the cave disappeared.
Much as he might despise shardohns, he was forced to admit that his thoughts, too, were slower, less acute, during the hours of daylight than in darkness.
Varnaythus had scarcely bothered to conceal his own contempt for Jerghar in Balthar, and the wizard-priest’s scorn had grated on him.
But Varnaythus had never encountered Jerghar in the blackness of night, when he was at the height of his powers.
There were times Jerghar hungered to welcome Varnaythus into his embrace then, show him the price of contempt.
It would not happen, not so long as Varnaythus was valuable to Carnadosa, for Krahana had decreed that Her sister’s chosen Servants were not to be touched.
Yet if the wizard-priest should fall from favor, if Carnadosa should withdraw Her protection . . . He put that thought aside, too, with a mental curse for the way it proved how his mind wandered under the influence of the accursed sun even here, under fifty feet of solid earth and stone. He knew what he had to do, and he knew what powerful weapons the Queen of the Damned had gifted him with.
But despite that, and despite the fact that his enemies were coming to him on ground of his choosing and preparation, he felt what a mortal man would have called a shiver of fear as he contemplated his mission. It would have been so much better if he’d dared to attack Warm Springs, to swoop down upon the manor with the shardohns and slaughter every living thing in it.
But his mistress’ plans had forbidden the shardohns to carry through against the manor after the initial attack on the courser herd.
Warm Springs, as much as the attack on the coursers who wintered there, had been the bait in the trap which would close upon Baron Tellian.
In the end, Lord Edinghas’ entire holding would be taken and devoured slowly, lovingly.
But not until after Tellian had been drawn in so that he might be included in the feast. Only . . .
Tellian hadn’t come.
He’d been sucked away to Kalatha, instead, lured away from Krahana and into the Spider’s web.
Jerghar wasn’t supposed to know the details of what Dahlaha and her mistress intended to happen, but he knew many things he wasn’t supposed to.
If Varnaythus was too confident of Jerghar’s stupidity to realize his attempts to prevent that had failed miserably before one who commanded his Lady’s resources, so much the worse for him. Yet the substitution of Bahzell Bahnakson for Baron Tellian threatened to disorder even Her plans, and it was Jerghar’s responsibility to make certain it did not.
He’d been gravely tempted to proceed with the attack on Warm Springs which had always been part of the original plan, but the speed with which Bahzell and his companions had reached Lord Edinghas from Balthar had taken him by surprise.
Bahzell had already arrived and healed the coursers of the shardohns’ lingering venom—something Jerghar hadn’t believed would be possible, even for a champion of Tomanāk—almost a full day before Jerghar had anticipated his arrival.
By the time Jerghar himself had assumed direct command of the shardohns and the additional Servants awaiting him and gotten his forces properly organized, Bahzell had done far more than simply heal the coursers.
He’d also been given one full priceless day of sunlight in which to recover from that ordeal, and he’d used his respite well. Jerghar had required only the gentlest probe by one of his fellow Servants to know that the accursed hradani had erected a defensive perimeter impossible to cross.
In fact, the sheer strength of the barrier Bahzell had managed to throw up was more than merely frightening.
The Horse Stealer had been a champion for less than one year, yet the seamless, impenetrable power of that -barrier—blazing incandescently with the terrifying blue light of Tomanāk for those with the eyes to see it—-surpassed anything Jerghar had ever encountered.
Thank the Lady he couldn’t bring that fixed, focused rampart with him! It must have cost him hours of concentration to erect it in the first place, and he had to have anchored it in the very soil of the Warm Springs home manor. But it appeared that the hradani was confident enough to come out from behind its protection at last.
Which was either a very good thing . . .
Or the very worst thing that could possibly have happened.
And if the shardohn’s report was correct, Jerghar should discover which it was this very night. Chapter Forty
It was the voice of Tomanāk Orfro, God of War and Chief Captain of the Gods of Light. Bahzell didn’t even blink, but his mobile ears twitched, moving in perfect parallel with Walsharno’s to point forward.
The hradani felt the courser’s reaction like an echo of his own, yet Walsharno took the cascading, musical thunder of that voice far more calmly than Bahzell had taken his own first conversation with Tomanāk.
There was a flavor of intense respect to his emotions, a touch of wonder and delight, but not one of awe.
He continued to trot briskly forward, swishing his tail to discourage a particularly irritating fly, and looked on with amused interest, perched like another viewpoint in Bahzell’s mind.
And yet, Bahzell has the right to fear for you, to seek to protect you—to be certain he has not “dragged” you to a fate you did not willingly accept.
And so I ask you, will you take sword oath to me as the first courser champion?> the courser’s voice rang in the vaults of Bahzell’s mind.
A part of the hradani wanted -desperately to forbid it, to prevent Walsharno from binding himself so inescapably to whatever fate awaited Bahzell himself.
But another part recognized that it was too late to prevent that.
That from the moment Walsharno willingly linked himself to him, their fates had been joined.
And another part of him recognized that he had no right to forbid Walsharno this.
That it was the courser’s—his brother’s—right to make the choice for himself.
A single musical note enveloped him, wrapped itself about him and Walsharno, and as it sang like the voice of the universe itself, Walsharno’s presence blazed beside him like the very Sun of Battle for which he was named.
The power and essence of Tomanāk himself was infused into that glorious heart of flame, and Bahzell felt all of the myriad connections between the three of them.
It was unlike anything he had ever felt before, even in that moment when he and Kaeritha had felt and experienced with Vaijon the moment that Tomanāk accepted his sword oath.
Stars twinkled overhead, their jewellike beauty uncaring, and the crescent new-moon hung low on the eastern horizon.
He stood beside Jerghar atop the low hill over the cave in which they had spent the daylight hours, and his eyes glittered with the deadly green light of his true nature. “Of course the Mistress was right,” Jerghar replied harshly, “but She never called them fools.” “Of course She did!” Treharm snarled. “Are you as big a fool as they? Are your mind and memory failing like a shardohn’s? Or do you call me a liar?” He glared at Jerghar, fingers flexing, and raw fury hovered between them.
Then Jerghar’s right hand came up and across in a terrible, crashing blow.
The sound of the impact was like a tree shattering in an icy forest, and Treharm’s head snapped to the side as its savage force flung him bodily from his feet.
He flew backward for almost ten feet before he hit the grassy hilltop and skidded, and his high-pitched shriek of rage tore the night like the very dagger of the damned. He bounded back up with the impossible speed and agility of what he had become, but even that unnatural quickness was too little and too late.
Jerghar had already moved, and the fingers of his right hand tangled in Treharm’s hair.
He fell to one knee and heaved brutally, yanking the other Servant’s spine into a straining bow across the bridge of his other thigh, and Treharm’s scream of rage turned into something more frantic, dark with fear, as Jerghar’s left arm pinned his own flailing arms.
And then even that whimpered into silence as Jerghar’s fangs flashed scant inches from his arched and straining throat. “You said something, pig?” The words were malformed, chopped into lisping pieces by the teeth which had suddenly elongated into deadly white scimitars, and the green glare flowed out of Treharm’s eyes like water.
The unnatural strength of a Servant of Krahana went with the emerald light, and Jerghar held his grip for another ten seconds, grinding that surrender deep into Treharm’s mind and soul.
Then, slowly, he released the other Servant, and allowed him to crouch on the grass at his feet.
Had Treharm been a dog, he would have rolled to expose his belly in submission, and Jerghar’s mouth curled in a snarl of dominance. “Defy me, or anger me, once more, and I will take you.” The words hissed and eddied past his fangs, and his eyes glared with a brighter, stronger green than Treharm’s ever had. “Yes, Master,” Treharm whimpered, and Jerghar spat into grass that hissed and smoked as his emerald spittle struck it. “Better,” he said, then straightened.
Had he still been a living man, he would have drawn a deep breath.
But he wasn’t, and so he simply forced his spine to unbend and his hands to unclench, then jerked his head impatiently at his trembling second in command. “Get up,” he said coldly, and Treharm pushed himself shrinkingly to his feet once more.
Jerghar watched him, tasting his own anger, his own contempt, then closed his glittering eyes and forced the last of his rage to yield to self-control. It took several seconds, but when he finally opened his eyes once again, his expression was calm.
Or as close to it as any Servant ever came when he put off his cloak of seeming mortality.
The simmering rage spawned by the insatiable hunger and need to feed which was always near the surface of any Servant in the hours of darkness could be useful when he hunted by himself.
But, he reminded himself once again, it could be something very different when two or more Servants were forced to work together. “Now,” he said to Treharm, his ice-cold voice more nearly normal as his fangs dwindled once again, his dominance reasserted, “it may be that they’re fools, and it may be that they aren’t.
What the Lady said was that their patron was arrogant, and that they partook of his arrogance.
But that isn’t the same as being fools, Treharm.
It may lead them into acts which appear foolish, but to assume that they’ll act in that fashion is to give them a dangerous advantage.
And this is a champion of the accursed sword.
Only an axe of Isvaria could be more dangerous to such as us.
Do not forget it.” — “Now, Layantha.” Jerghar’s command was a sibilant hiss as he crouched atop his hill, and the once-woman beside him smiled a terrible smile.
Layantha Peliath was something vanishingly rare among the Servants of Krahana—a mage who’d actually sought the service of the Queen of the Damned.
And not just any mage, for she’d been an empath.
Not a receptive empath.
Most of those went into healing, either of the mind or the body, and the very nature of their talent was enough to make any fate like Layantha’s unthinkable.
Had she been a receptive empath, her talent would have carried the predatory cruelty of Krahana and her Servants too clearly to her for her to have voluntarily yielded.
She might have been taken by a Servant, or a shardohn, or even Krahana herself, but she would not have yielded, and so could not have become what she now was. But Layantha had been a projective empath, able to project her own emotions, but unable to sense those of others.
It was one of the mage talents of extremely limited utility, and perhaps that had been a factor in the choice she’d made.
Layantha had never had the sort of personality which was prepared to accept that she was not the center of everyone’s universe as she was of her own. She hadn’t realized in time that to accept Krahana was to become no more than one more satellite of the voracious void which she had made her mistress.
The fact that she remained anything but the center of the universe was bitter poison on her tongue, but that only fanned her hatred of all still-living beings even higher.
And the mage talent which had survived her surrender to Krahana was no longer a thing of limited utility. Now, as her enemies crested the last undulating swell of the Wind Plain before their hill, she reached out to that portion of the reservoir of focused power Jerghar was prepared to make available to her, and her smile was a hideous thing to see. * * * A wave of sheer terror curled across the night-struck grassland like a tsunami. Terror was no stranger to Bahzell Bahnakson.
He’d faced wizards, cursed swords, and demons, and no man, however great his courage, was immune to fear.
But he had never tasted a deeper terror, one with a darker core of horror . . .
Or one which had no apparent source at all. Layantha’s tidal bore of darkness crashed over him, and he heard stricken cries and high-pitched, equine squeals as it fountained over his companions, as well.
It smashed down on them, vast and noisome and more crippling than any physical wound.
He sensed them behind him, and knew that the only reason they hadn’t fled was that the terror which had invaded them was so totally overwhelming that they were paralyzed.
Frozen helplessly, like mesmerized rabbits waiting to be taken by a gamekeeper. Bahzell was trapped with them, but the black river of ice which had sucked them under could not—quite—reach his core.
That indomitable core of elemental hradani stubbornness, buttressed by his link to Tomanāk . . .
And to Walsharno. He and the courser stood motionless, as frozen as any of their companions, as the night took on a hideous unlife of its own.
He could see the darkness coming alive with the pustulant green sores of hundreds of glittering eyes.
They came towards him, and he recognized them.
Not because he’d ever seen them with his own eyes, but because Gayrfressa had seen them.
Had felt the fangs and poison, and the terrible, lustful hatred which lived behind them.
He had experienced Gayrfressa’s experiences as his own, and beyond that, he was a champion.
The true nature of the shardohns could not hide itself from him, and so, even more than Gayrfressa, he understood what he faced and the true horror of what awaited any who fell to them. The creatures closed in slowly, made cautious by their dread of Tomanāk and his power despite the quicksand of projected terror which had frozen their enemies.
And that caution was a mistake. They should have flung themselves upon Bahzell.
They should have ripped the life and soul out of him and Walsharno instantly, brutally, while Layantha held them paralyzed.
But instead, they hesitated, and in that moment of hesitation, Bahzell reached deep. He didn’t think—he simply acted.
Despite the vicious wave of emotion sweeping over him he reached both deep within himself and without.
It was as if he stretched out both of his hands, one to Tomanāk and one to Walsharno, and answering hands closed upon his in clasps of living steel.
He was an acrobat, arcing through empty air in the unwavering knowledge that hands he could trust even more deeply than he trusted his own would be waiting to catch him, and the electric shock when they did rocked through his soul like cleansing sunlight. And even as his god and his courser brother caught him in that three-part fusion, Bahzell summoned the Rage.
Summoned the wild whirlwind of berserker bloodlust which had been the curse of his people for twelve centuries, until time and healing had transformed it into something else—into elemental determination and deadly, ice-cold concentration. The mighty cables of hopeless horror Layantha had cast about him snapped like cobweb, shredded by the rushing wind of Walsharno’s fierce strength and shriveled by the blazing presence of Tomanāk.
And at the heart of that focus of Dark-rejecting Light stood Bahzell Bahnakson in the dreadful exaltation of the Rage, like the rock on which the tide of terror broke and recoiled in baffled foam and rushing confusion. “Tomanāk!” The deep, bull-throated bellow of his war cry split the darkness, and Walsharno’s wild, fierce scream of rage came with it.
Bahzell’s sword leapt into his right hand, summoned by a thought, glaring so bright a blue that even mortal eyes were dazzled by its brilliance, and the shardohns froze, squealing with a terror even deeper than the one Layantha had conjured to paralyze their foes. * * * Layantha screamed.
Her hands rose to her head, balled into fists, pounding her temples, and she staggered back.
She writhed, shrieking as the terror she’d projected recoiled upon her.
In all her mortal life she had never received the emotions of another.
She’d been as blind to them, despite her empathy, as any non-mage.
But now, at last, her mind was opened, its barriers and defenses ripped wide by a talon of azure power, and all the hatred and black despair she had leveled against her intended prey lashed through her. She shrieked again, fighting frantically to stop the pain.
But she wasn’t permitted to.
She couldn’t stop projecting, with all of the stolen energy Jerghar had funneled to her.
And not just because Tomanāk and his champions would not allow it.
The slaughtered victims of the Warm Springs courser herd had been dragged back to face the desecration of being made to serve their destroyers.
But those tormented souls were the souls of coursers, and as Lord Edinghas had told Bahzell, coursers would not yield to demon, devil, or god.
They refused to take back their power.
They writhed, shrieking in torment as terrible as Layantha’s own as Jerghar flailed them with the power of his own will, beating at them with whips of fire as he commanded them to stop pouring their stolen life energy through her mage talent.
They writhed . . .
But they did not relent. Layantha screamed again and again, jerking, her green eyes blazing like fiery suns, and then Jerghar leapt back from her, stumbling and clumsy in the haste of sudden fear, as she began to burn. It was only smoke, at first, rising from her.
But then, in the flicker of an instant, smoke became flame.
A terrible flame that mingled the blue glory of Tomanāk and the green pollution of Krahana into a towering furnace.
A column of fire roared into the night, and Jerghar cowered away from the shrieking presence trapped at its heart.
There was no heat, yet Layantha shriveled, consumed and blazing in a holocaust which did not even dry the dew from the grass on which she stood. She screamed once more—a terrible, quavering sound that trailed away into infinite time and distance—and then she was gone, leaving not so much as a trace of ash to mark her destruction. * * * The paralysis which had held Bahzell’s companions vanished as abruptly as the light of a snuffed candle.
He heard and sensed them as they fought to shake off the lingering effects, but there was no time for him to explain what had happened.
Jerghar had sent Treharm and two other Servants to command the shardohns, and even as he shrank away from the vortex of destruction consuming Layantha, his mind screamed orders at them, whipping them into the attack. — Dame Kaeritha Seldansdaughter knew that, just as she knew how few of Tomanāk’s champions ever died in bed.
But if that was the price to hold off the Dark which had claimed fallen Kontovar, it was one she would pay.
And if worse came to worst, the letter she had dispatched to Bahzell under Sword Seal contained all of her suspicions, discoveries, and deductions.
If it should happen that this time she was fated to fail, she knew with absolute certainty that her brother would avenge her and complete her task as surely as she would have done that for him. She smiled warmly at the thought, then shook off her dark musings and raised her head, turning her face more fully to the sun and luxuriating in its warmth. * * * Quaysar was impressive. The temple’s original architects had found one of the few genuine hilltops the Wind Plain offered.
It was obvious as Kaeritha approached that the upthrust knob upon which the temple and the town which supported it stood was basically a solid plug or dome of granite.
It was nowhere near as towering as it had seemed at first glance, she realized as she drew closer.
But it didn’t have to be, either.
The low, rolling flatlands of the Wind Plain stretched away in every direction, as far as the eye could see, and even Quaysar’s relatively low perch allowed it to command its surroundings effortlessly. The old town of Quaysar, which had been folded into the temple community, was surrounded by a low but defensible wall.
Newer buildings and outlying farms spread out from the old town along the arms of the crossroads which met beside the sizable pond or small lake at the base of the granite pedestal which supported the temple, and Kaeritha saw workers in the fields as Cloudy trotted past them. The temple itself had its own wall, which was actually higher than that of the old town and rose sheer from the very lip of the temple’s stony perch.
That sort of security feature was no part of the temples of Lillinara in the Empire of the Axe, but the Empire was the oldest, most settled realm of Norfressa.
Things had been far less orderly on the Wind Plain when Quaysar was first constructed.
For that matter, they still were, she supposed.
Or they had the potential to be, at any rate; the Time of Troubles wasn’t that far in the past.
Given that history, she didn’t blame the original builders for seeing to it that their temple was not simply located in the most defensible position available but well fortified, to boot. She couldn’t see much of the temple buildings with the wall in the way, but the three traditional towers of any temple of Lillinara rose above them.
The Tower of the Mother, with its round, alabaster full moon, was flanked by the slightly lower crescent moon-crowned Tower of the Maiden and the Tower of the Crone, with its matching globe of obsidian.
The added height of the prominence upon which the entire temple stood lifted them even higher against the blue sky and high-piled, snow-white clouds to the south, and Kaeritha felt her imagination stir as she realized how they must look against the night heavens when the silver-white glow of Lillinara touched their stonework.
Quaysar was far from the largest temple of Lillinara Kaeritha had ever seen, but its location and special significance gave it a majesty and a sense of presence she’d seldom seen equaled. Yet as she drew closer still, the imagined image of towers, burning with cool, radiant light against the star strewn heavens faded, and an icy chill touched her heart.
No silver Lady’s Light clung to those towers or those walls under the warm sunlight of early afternoon, but Kaeritha’s eyes weren’t like those of other mortals.
They Saw what others didn’t, and her mouth tightened as an ominous, poison-green light flickered at the corner of her vision. She knew that stomach-churning green.
She’d Seen it before, and her mind went back to a rainy day in Baron Tellian’s library when she’d told him how unhappily familiar with the presence of the Dark champions of Tomanāk were. She inhaled deeply and gazed up at the temple, trying to isolate those elusive flickers of green.
She couldn’t, and her jaw clenched as she failed.
Each of Tomanāk’s champions perceived evil and the handiwork of the Dark Gods in his or her own, unique fashion.
Bahzell received his “feelings”—an impression of things not yet fully perceived, yet somehow known.
Another champion she’d known heard music which guided him.
But Kaeritha, like some magi to whom she’d spoken, Saw.
For her, it was the interplay of light and shadow—or of Light and Dark.
That inner perception had never failed or deceived her, and yet today, the meaning of what she Saw was . . .
She couldn’t pin it down, couldn’t even be positive that the green light-devils dancing at the edges of her vision were coming from the temple, and not the town clustered below it. That shouldn’t have happened.
Especially not when she’d come already primed by her suspicions and earlier investigations.
The revealing glare of evil should have been obvious to her . . .
Unless someone—or something—with enormous power was deliberately concealing it. She made herself exhale and shook her head like a horse bothered by a fly.
The concealment wasn’t necessarily directed specifically against her, she told herself.
Whatever was happening in Quaysar was clearly part of a years-long effort, and the very thing which would make Quaysar such a prize in the eyes of the Dark was its importance to Lillinara and, specifically, to the Sothōii war maids.
But that also meant Quaysar was more prominent, and more likely to draw pilgrims and visitors, than most other temples of its relatively modest size.
And with pilgrims came those besides Kaeritha whose eyes might See what the Dark preferred to keep hidden. Yet logical as that conclusion was, the fact remained that it required tremendous power to so thoroughly obscure the inner sight of a champion of Tomanāk.
Indeed, such power must have completely blinded the perceptions—whether of sight, or hearing, or sensing—of anyone less intimately bound to the service of her god. Which meant that somewhere atop that timeworn tooth of granite waited a servant of the Greater Dark. Yes, she told herself grimly.
And it’s probably the ‘Voice’ herself.
In fact, it would almost have to be.
There’s no way anything this Dark and powerful could hide itself from an uncorrupted Voice.
But whatever it is, it doesn’t have complete control.
Not even a Dark God himself could keep me from Seeing if that were the case.
Great! She snorted in harsh mental laughter.
It’s not everyone in Quaysar.
All I have to do is assume that anyone I meet serves the Dark until she proves differently! She closed her eyes and drew another deep breath. All right, Tomanāk, she thought.
You never promised it would be easy.
And I suppose I’d be riding off in search of reinforcements instead of riding in all by my fool self, if my skull wasn’t just as thick as Bahzell’s.
But it is.
So, if You don’t have anything else to do this afternoon, why don’t You and I go call on the Voice? * * * “Well, she’s almost here, Paratha.” Varnaythus stood on the town wall of Quasar and watched the single rider approaching the town. “Fine,” the tall woman standing beside him said almost indifferently.
She sounded so blasé about it that Varnaythus turned his head to glare at her. “I know Dahlaha is . . .
Confident, let us say, Paratha.
But I’d hoped it was at least remotely possible that your confidence might not be quite as, ah, exuberant as hers.
This is a champion of Tomanāk, you know.” “So she is,” the tall woman agreed.
She turned away from the wall and leaned her back against it while she looked at Varnaythus with an expression which mingled confidence, contempt, and something else.
Hunger, Varnaythus decided.
Or perhaps not hunger—perhaps eagerness. “You do remember that you weren’t supposed to be seeing any champions—and especially not any champions of Tomanāk—here at Quaysar, don’t you?” he asked in a tone of withering irony. “No, we weren’t,” she agreed. “On the other hand, it’s not something I haven’t made preparations for.
The Spider knew what She was doing when She recruited me, Varnaythus.
With all due modesty, I’m the best there is.
I’ll take care of your little champion for you.” — Varnaythus looked at her for several long, silent seconds, then shrugged. “Very well.
I hope you’re right.
But whether you are or not, the responsibility is yours, Paratha—yours and Dahlaha’s.
I’ve warned you, as I warned her.
I hope your preparations are adequate.” “They are,” she said with flat assurance. “I’m delighted to hear it,” he said. “But in the meantime, I’ve done everything I can.
From here on, you’re on your own.
If your confidence is justified, I’ll see you again in a few days.” Paratha opened her mouth again, but before she could speak, he was gone.
She stood on the battlements, glaring at the empty flagstones on which he’d stood, then growled a curse under her breath and turned to look back out at the road from Kalatha once more. The trotting rider was much closer now, and Paratha gazed at her for two long minutes with a dark, hungry smile.
Then she laughed once, a sound like a frozen branch shattering under the weight of winter ice, and turned away. * * * “Of course, Dame Kaeritha! Come in, come in! We’ve been expecting you.” The officer in command of the temple’s largely ceremonial gate guard bowed deeply and swept his arm at the open gate in a welcoming gesture.
He straightened to find Kaeritha gazing down at him from Cloudy’s saddle with a quizzical expression and frowned ever so slightly, as if surprised she hadn’t ridden straight past at his invitation. “Expecting me?” she said, and he cleared his throat. “Uh, yes, Milady.” He shook himself. “The Voice warned us several days ago that you would be coming to visit us,” he said in a less flustered tone. “I see.” Kaeritha filed that information away along with the officer’s strong Sothōii accent and the warmth which had infused his own voice as he mentioned the Voice.
It was uncommon for a temple of Lillinara in the Empire of the Axe to have its gate guard commanded by a man.
It wasn’t precisely unheard of, even there, however, given the small percentage of Axewomen who followed the profession of arms, and she supposed it made even more sense here in the Kingdom of the Sothōii, where even fewer women were warriors.
Yet she also saw two war maids in chari and yathu standing behind him, with swords at their hips, crossed bandoliers of throwing stars, and the traditional war maid garrottes wound around their heads like leather headbands.
Given the special significance Quaysar held for all war maids, she found it . . .
Interesting that the temple’s entire guard force didn’t consist solely of them. The way the guard commander had spoken of the Voice was almost equally interesting, especially from a native Sothōii.
He seemed completely comfortable in the service of a temple not simply dedicated to the goddess of women but intimately associated with the creation of all those “unnatural” war maids.
Granted, anyone who would have accepted the position in the first place must be more enlightened than most of his fellow Sothōii males, but there was more than simple acceptance or even approval in his tone.
It came far closer to something which might almost have been called . . .
For that matter, Kaeritha didn’t much care for the look in his eyes, although she would have been hard put to pin down what it was about it that bothered her. “Yes, Milady,” the officer continued. “She knew you’d visited Kalatha and Lord Trisu, and she told us almost a week ago that you would be visiting us, as well.” He smiled. “And, of course, she made it abundantly clear that we were to greet you with all of the courtesy due to a champion of the War God.” Kaeritha glanced at the rest of his guard force: the two war maids she’d already noticed and three more men in the traditional Sothōii cuirass and leather.
They were too well trained to abandon their stance of professional watchfulness, but their body language and expressions matched the warmth in their commander’s voice. “That was very considerate of the Voice,” she said after a moment. “I appreciate it.
And she was quite correct; I have come to Quaysar to meet with her.
Since she was courteous enough to warn you I was coming, did she also indicate whether or not she would be able to grant me an audience?” “My instructions were to pass you straight in, and I believe you’ll find Major Kharlan, the commander of the Voice’s personal guards, waiting to escort you directly to her.” “I see the Voice is as foresightful as she is courteous,” Kaeritha said with a smile. “As are those who serve her and the Goddess here in Quaysar.” “Thank you for those kind words, Milady.” The officer bowed again, less deeply, and waved at the open gateway once more. “But we all know only serious matters could have brought you this far from the Empire, and the Voice is eager for Major Kharlan to escort you to her.” “Of course,” Kaeritha agreed, inclining her head in a small, answering bow. “I hope we meet again before I leave Quaysar,” she added, and touched Cloudy gently with her heel. The mare trotted through the open gate.
The tunnel beyond it was longer than Kaeritha had expected.
The temple’s defensive wall was clearly thicker than it had appeared from a distance, and the disk of sunlight waiting to welcome her at its farther end seemed tiny and far away.
Her shoulders were tight, tension sang in her belly, and she was acutely conscious of the silent menace of the murder holes in the tunnel ceiling as she passed under them.
This wasn’t the first time she’d ridden knowingly into what she suspected was an ambush, and she knew she appeared outwardly calm and unconcerned.
It just didn’t feel that way from her side. Major Kharlan was waiting for her, and Kaeritha raised a mental eyebrow as she realized the major was accompanied only by a groom who was obviously there to take care of Cloudy for her.
Apparently, whatever the Voice had in mind included nothing so crude as swords in the temple courtyard. “Milady Champion,” the major murmured, bending her head in greeting. “My name is Kharlan, Paratha Kharlan.
Quaysar is honored by your visit.” The major had a pronounced Sothōii accent, and stood an inch or so taller than Kaeritha herself, but she wore a cuirass over a chain hauberk much like Kaeritha’s own and carried a cavalry saber.
If she was a war maid, she was obviously one of the minority who’d trained with more “standard” weapons. That much was apparent the instant Kaeritha glanced at her, just as it would have been to anyone else.
But that was all “anyone else” might have seen.
The additional armor Kharlan wore was visible only to Kaeritha, and she tensed inside like a cat suddenly faced by a cobra as she Saw the corona of sickly, yellow-green light which outlined the major’s body.
The sensation of “wrongness” radiating from her was like a punch in the belly to Kaeritha, a taste so vile she almost gagged physically and wondered for a moment how anyone could possibly fail to perceive it as clearly as she did. “The Voice has instructed me to bid you welcome and to escort you to her at your earliest convenience,” the tall woman continued, smiling, her voice so bizarrely normal sounding after what Kaeritha had Seen that it required all of Kaeritha’s hard-trained self-control not to stare at her in disbelief. “I appreciate your gracious welcome, Major,” she replied pleasantly, instead, after she’d dismounted, and smiled as if she’d noticed nothing at all. “How else ought we to welcome a champion of Lillinara’s own brother?” Paratha responded. “Our Voice has bidden me welcome you in her name and in the name of her Lady, and to assure you that she and the entire temple stand ready to assist you in any way we may.” “Her graciousness and generosity are no less than I would expect from a Voice of the Mother,” Kaeritha said. “And they are most welcome.” “Welcome, perhaps,” Paratha said, “yet they’re also the very least we can offer a servant of Tomanāk who rides in search of justice.
And since you come to us upon that errand, may I guide you directly to the Voice? Or would you prefer to wash and refresh yourself after your ride, first?” “As you say, Major, I come in search of justice.
If the Voice is prepared to see me so quickly, I would prefer to go directly to her.” — She made a small gesture, and Kaeritha felt the pressure on her vocal cords vanish. “You had something you’d care to say?” the Voice mocked her. “They aren’t my ‘precious war maids,'” Kaeritha said after a moment, and even she was vaguely surprised by how calm and steady her voice sounded. “And you’re scarcely the first to try to do them ill.
Some of the damage you’ve inflicted will stick, no doubt.
I admit that.
But damage can be healed, and Tomanāk—” it seemed to her that the Voice flinched ever so slightly at that name “—is the God of Truth, as well as Justice and War.
And the truth is always the bane of the Dark, is it not, O ‘Voice’?” “So you truly think these stone-skulled Sothōii will actually believe a word of it? Or that the war maids themselves will believe it?” The Voice laughed yet again. “I think not, little champion.
My plans go too deep and my web is too broad for that.
I’ve touched and . . .
Convinced too many people—like that pathetic little puppet Lanitha, who believes Lillinara Herself commanded her to help safeguard my minor alterations so the war maids get what should have been theirs to begin with.
Or those angry little war maids, each so eager to ‘avenge’ herself for all those real and imagined wrongs.
Or your darling Yalith and her Council, who don’t even remember that their documents used to say anything else.
As you yourself told their fool of an archivist, those who already hate and despise the war maids—those like Trisu—will never believe that they didn’t forge the ‘original documents’ at Kalatha.
And the war maids won’t believe they’re forgeries either.
Not after all my careful spadework.
And not without a champion of Tomanāk to attest to the legitimacy of Trisu’s copies . . .
And to explain how Kalatha’s come to have been altered without the connivance of Yalith and her Town Council.
And I’m very much afraid you won’t be around to tell them.” “Perhaps not,” Kaeritha said calmly. “There are, however, other champions of Tomanāk, and one of them will shortly know all I know and everything I’ve deduced.
I think I could safely rely upon him to accomplish my task for me, if it were necessary.” The Voice’s brown eyes narrowed and she frowned.
But then she forced her expression to smooth once again, and shrugged. “Perhaps you’re correct, little champion,” she said lightly. “Personally, I think the damage will linger.
I’ve found such fertile ground on both sides—the lords who hate and loath everything the war maids stand for, and the war maids whose resentment of all the insults and injustices they and their sisters have endured over the years burns equally hot and bitter.
Oh, yes, those will listen to me, not your precious fellow champion.
They’ll believe what suits their prejudices and hatreds, and I will send my handmaidens forth to spread the word among them.
My handmaidens, little champion, not those of that stupid, gutless bitch this place was built for!” She glared at Kaeritha, and the knight felt the exultant hatred pouring off of her like smoke and acid. “And to fan the flames properly,” the false Voice continued, her soprano suddenly soft and vicious . . .
And hungry, “Trisu is about to take matters into his own hands.” Kaeritha said nothing, but the other woman saw the question in her eyes and laughed coldly. “There are already those who believe he connived at—or possibly even personally ordered—the murder of two handmaidens of Lillinara.
He didn’t, of course.
For all his bigotry, he’s proven irritatingly resistant to suggestions which might have led him to that sort of direct action.
But that isn’t what the war maids think.
And it won’t be what they think when men in his colors attack Quaysar itself.
When they ride in through the gates of the town and the temple under his banner, coming as envoys to the Voice, and then butcher every citizen of Quaysar and every servant of the temple they can catch.” Despite herself, Kaeritha couldn’t keep the horror of the images the false Voice’s words evoked out of her eyes, and the other woman’s smile belonged on something from the depths of Krahana’s darkest hell. “There will be survivors, of course.
There always are, aren’t there? And I’ll see to it that none of the survivors anyone knows about were ever part of my own little web.
The most attentive examination by one of your own infallible champions of Tomanāk will only demonstrate that they’re telling the truth about what they saw and who they saw doing it.
And one of the things they’ll see, little champion, will be myself and my personal guards and the most senior priestesses, barricading ourselves into the Chapel of the Crone to make our final stand.
Trisu’s men will attempt to break into it after us, of course.
And I will call down the Lady’s Wrath to utterly destroy the chapel’s attackers . . .
And everyone inside it.
Of course, it may not be the Wrath of the precise Lady everyone will assume it was, but no matter.
The blast and fires will neatly explain why there are no bodies.
Or, at least, none of our bodies.” She shook her head in mock sorrow. “No doubt some of Trisu’s fellows will be horrified.
Others will be charitable enough to believe he simply ran mad, but some of them will feel he was justified in burning out this nest of perversions, especially when the question of forged documents comes to the fore.
And whatever Tellian and the Crown may do, little champion, the damage will be done.
If Trisu is punished while protesting his innocence and flourishing his proof of forgery, then his fellow lords will blame his liege and the King for a miscarriage of justice.
And if he isn’t punished—if, for example, some interfering busybody champion of Tomanāk should examine him and find he’s telling the truth and had nothing to do with the attack—then the war maids will be convinced it’s all part of a cover-up and that he’s escaped justice.
And so will be many within the Church of Lillinara.” “Was that your plan all along?” Kaeritha asked. “To sow dissension and hatred and distrust?” “Well, that and to enjoy the pretty fires and all the lovely killing, of course,” the false Voice agreed, pouting as she studied her polished fingernails. “I see.” Kaeritha considered that for a moment, then cocked an eyebrow at the other woman. “I imagine it wasn’t too difficult to assassinate the old Voice once Major Kharlan became the commander of her bodyguards.
I don’t know whether you used poison or a spell, and I don’t suppose it matters much, either way.
But I would like to know what you did with the Voice who was supposed to replace her.” The false Voice froze, staring at her for just a moment.
It was only an instant, almost too brief to be noticed, and then she smiled. “What makes you think anyone did anything ‘with’ me? There was no need.
It’s not as if I were the first oh-so-perfect, straight and narrow priest or priestess to realize the truth, you know.
Or would you pretend that no others have ever joined me in transferring my allegiance to a goddess more worthy of my worship?” “No,” Kaeritha acknowledged. “But it’s not as if it happens very often, either.
And it’s never happened at all in the case of a true Voice.
Nor has it in your case.
You were never a priestess of the Mother—or did you truly think you could fool a champion of Tomanāk about that?” She grimaced. “I knew the moment I Saw you that you were no priestess of Lillinara.
In fact, I’m not entirely certain you were ever even human in the first place.
But the one thing I’m positive of is that whoever—or whatever—you may be or look like, you are not the Voice the Church assigned here.” “Very clever,” the false Voice hissed.
She glared at Kaeritha for several seconds, then shook herself. “I’m afraid that sweet little girl suffered a mischief before she could take up her duties here,” she said with pious sorrow. “I know how dreadfully it disappointed her—in fact, she told me so herself, just before I cut her heart out and Paratha and I ate it in front of her.” She smiled viciously. “And since it bothered her so, and since I was in some small way responsible for her failure, I thought it incumbent upon me to come and discharge those responsibilities for her.
A duty which I am now about to complete.” “Ah.” Kaeritha nodded. “And just where do I fit into these plans of yours?” she inquired. “Why, you die, of course,” the false Voice told her. “Oh, not immediately—not physically, that is.
I’m afraid we’ll have to settle for just destroying your soul, for the moment.
Then I’ll replace it with a little demon whose essence I happen to have handy.
He’ll keep the flesh alive until ‘Trisu’ gets around to attacking.
Who knows?” She smiled terribly. “Perhaps he’ll enjoy experimenting with some of my guards.
I’m afraid you won’t be around anymore to observe the way he broadens your sexual horizons, but no doubt he’ll be amused.
And then, when Trisu attacks, you’ll die gallantly, fighting to defend the temple against its desecrators.
I think that will add a certain artistic finish to the entire affair, don’t you? With a little luck, it will bring your entire church into the fray against Trisu.
Won’t that be lovely? The church of the god of justice helping to destroy the innocent man who didn’t have a thing to do with your fate? And whether that happens or not, the opportunity to treat one of Tomanāk’s little pets to the experience she so amply deserves would make this entire investment of effort worth while in its own right.” “I see,” Kaeritha repeated. “And you believe you can do all of this to me because—?” “I don’t believe anything,” the false Voice told her flatly. “You’ve been mine to do with as I chose from the instant you stepped into this chamber, you stupid bitch.
Why do you think you haven’t been able to so much as move your head, or shift your feet?” “A good question,” Kaeritha conceded. “But there’s a better one.” “What ‘better one’?” the false Voice sneered disdainfully. “Why do you think I haven’t been able to?” Kaeritha asked calmly, and both swords hissed from their sheaths as she catapulted towards the other woman. The sudden eruption of movement took the false Voice completely by surprise.
She’d never even suspected that Kaeritha had simply chosen not to move or speak when she became aware of the power crushing down upon her.
Whoever—or whatever—the “Voice” might be, she’d never before tried to control a champion of Tomanāk.
If she had, she would have realized that no coercion, no spell of control or compulsion, even backed by the power of another god’s avatar, could hold the will or mind of one who had sworn herself to the War God’s service and touched His soul as He had touched hers.
And because the false Voice hadn’t realized that, she was still staring at Kaeritha—gawking in disbelief—as two matched short swords wrapped in coronas of brilliant blue fire drove through her heart and lungs. A scream of agony cored with fury ripped through the audience chamber as the creature masquerading as a Voice of Lillinara fell back in a scalding gush of blood.
Kaeritha twisted her wrists before the swords slid free, and even as she did, she went forward on the ball of her left foot while her right foot flashed up behind her.
The heel of her heavy riding boot smashed into the person she’d sensed charging up behind her.
It wasn’t the clean, central strike she’d hoped for, but it was enough to deflect the attack and send the attacker crashing to the floor with a whooping cry of anguish. Kaeritha let the force of her kick pivot her on her left foot so that she faced Major Kharlan and the Voice’s other servitors.
The crackling blue aura of a champion of a God of Light roared up like a volcano of light, blasting through the audience chamber like a silent hurricane.
It clung to her, flickering between her and the rest of the world like a thin canopy of lightning.
But she could see through it clearly, and her eyes found Paratha with unerring speed.
The major’s saber was still coming out of its scabbard, and at least half of the others seemed stunned into momentary paralysis.
But that paralysis wouldn’t hold them for long, and Kaeritha knew it. Every champion of Tomanāk had his or her own preferred combat style.
Kaeritha’s was totally unlike Bahzell’s, except for one thing; neither of them was ever prepared to stand on the defensive if they had any choice.
And since there was no one to watch her back or coordinate with, Kaeritha Seldansdaughter decided to make a virtue of the fact that there was only one of her. She charged. There was no doubt in her mind that Paratha was the most dangerous of her remaining opponents.
Unfortunately, Paratha seemed disinclined to face her in personal combat.
The major dodged swiftly, darting behind one of the corrupted priestesses, who shook herself and then charged to meet Kaeritha with no weapon besides a dagger and the naked fury blazing in her eyes. Kaeritha’s right blade came down with lightning speed and all the elegance of a cleaver.
It lopped off her opponent’s right hand like a pruning hook removing a branch.
The woman shrieked as blood spouted from the stump of her wrist, and then Kaeritha’s left blade went through the front of her throat from right to left in a backhanded fan of blood.
Some of the blood splashed across Kaeritha’s face, painting it like a barbarian Wakūo raider’s. “Tomanāk! Tomanāk!” Kaeritha’s war cry echoed in the chamber as another dagger grated on her breastplate, and a short, vicious thrust put one of her swords through her attacker’s belly.
The mortally wounded priestess fell back, writhing and screaming, and Kaeritha’s champion’s healing sense cringed as she realized all of the daggers coming at her were coated in deadly poison. She slashed a third priestess to the floor with her right hand even as her left sword darted out to engage and parry yet another dagger.
She twisted between two opponents, killing one and wounding the other as she passed, and then she was behind them all and spun on her toes like a dancer to charge once more. “Tomanāk!” Her foes seemed less eager to engage her this time, and she smiled like a direcat, teeth white through the blood on her face, as she slammed into them once more.
Two more priestesses went down, then another, and finally Kaeritha heard alarm bells ringing throughout the temple complex. Her jaw tightened.
She had no doubt at all that the Voice and Paratha had drawn upon their patron’s power to make certain Quaysar’s guard force was loyal to them, whether or not those guards knew what they truly served.
And even if there’d been no tampering at all, any guardsman who entered this audience chamber and saw the Voice and half a dozen or more of her priestesses dead on the floor was unlikely to assume that the person who’d killed them was the intended victim of an ambush by the Dark.
She had no more than seconds before a veritable flood of guardsmen and war maids came pouring in upon her, and her swords flashed like lethal scythes as she slashed her way through the dagger-armed priestesses towards Major Kharlan. The bodies between them flew aside, screaming or already dead, and Paratha was no longer falling back.
The major still declined to rush forward, watching with no more apparent emotion than a serpent as her allies fell like so much dead meat before Kaeritha’s blades.
But she made no effort to flee, either, and as Kaeritha looked at her, she Saw something she’d never Seen before. A cable of vile yellow-green energy linked Paratha to the corpse of the false Voice, and even as Kaeritha watched, something flowed along that cable.
Something coming from the dead Voice to the living Paratha.
And there were other cables, reaching out to the fallen priestesses, as well.
The web of sickening luminescence centered on Paratha, sucking greedily at whatever flowed along it.
Kaeritha didn’t know what it was, but the corona which had clung to Paratha from the outset suddenly blazed up, fierce and bright as a forest fire to Kaeritha’s Vision.
And as it did, Kaeritha knew at last which of the Dark Gods she faced, for a huge, hideous spider wrapped in flame arose behind Paratha. The spider of Shīgū, Queen of Hell and Mother of Madness.
Wife of Phrobus and mother of all his dark children.
Far more powerful than her son Sharnā, with a foul and twisted malice none of her offspring could equal, and Lillinara’s most bitter enemy for the way in which her parody of womanhood perverted and fouled all that Lillinara stood for. Chapter Forty-Five The flame-wrapped spider towered up, compound eyes ablaze with hatred and madness.
Its mandibles clashed, dripping with venom that flamed and hissed, bubbling on the polished stone floor as it burned its way into it.
Claws scraped and grated, and the vilest stench Kaeritha had ever imagined filled the audience chamber.
The hideous apparition loomed over her, reaching for her with more than mere claws and pincers, and a black tide of terror lapped out before it. Even as Kaeritha recognized the spider, Paratha seemed to grow taller.
The false Voice hadn’t been Shīgū’s true tool, Kaeritha realized; Paratha had.
The Voice might even have believed that she was Shīgū’s chosen, but in truth, it had always been Paratha, and now the major no longer hid behind the camouflage of the Voice.
She was drinking in the life energy—probably even the very souls—of her fallen followers, and something more was coming with it.
Potent as all that energy might be, it was only a focus, a burning glass which reached out for something even stronger and more vile and focused it all upon the major. Paratha’s face was transfigured, and her entire body seemed to quiver and vibrate as Shīgū poured energy into her chosen.
Kaeritha remembered Bahzell’s description of the night he’d faced an avatar of Sharnā, and she knew this was worse.
Harnak of Navahk had carried a cursed blade which had served as Sharnā’s key to the universe of mortals.
Paratha carried no key; she was the key, and Kaeritha’s mind cringed away from the insane risk Shīgū had chosen to run. No wonder she’d been able to penetrate Lillinara’s church, tamper with scores of people in Kalatha, and kill Lillinara’s priestesses and Voices and replace them with her own tools! For all the endless ages since Phrobus’ fall into evil, no god of Dark or Light had dared to contend openly with one of his or her divine enemies on the mortal plane.
They were simply too powerful.
If they clashed directly, they might all too easily destroy the very universe for whose dominion they contended.
And so there were limits, checks set upon their power and how they might intervene in the world of mortals.
It was why there were champions of Light and their Dark equivalents. Yet Shīgū had intervened directly.
She’d moved beyond the agreed upon limits and stepped fully into the world of mortals.
Paratha was no champion.
She was Shīgū’s focus, her anchor in this universe.
She wasn’t touched by the power of Shīgū—in that moment, she was the power of Shīgū, and Kaeritha felt a terrifying surge of answering power pouring into her from Tomanāk. “So, little champion,” Paratha hissed. “You would contend with Me, would you?” She laughed, and the web of her power reached out to her living minions, as well as the dead.
Kaeritha heard their shrieks of agony—agony mingled with a horrible, defiled ecstasy—as Shīgū’s avatar seized them.
They didn’t die, not right away, but that was no mercy.
Instead, they became secondary nodes of the web centered upon Paratha.
They blazed like human torches to Kaeritha’s Sight as the same power crashed through them, and the will which animated Paratha—a will Kaeritha realized was no longer mortal, if it ever had been—fastened upon them like pincers.
All nine of the remaining priestesses moved as one, closing in to form a deadly circle about Kaeritha with Paratha. “So tasty your soul will be,” Paratha crooned. “I’ll treasure it like fine brandy.” “I think not,” Kaeritha told her, and Paratha’s eyes flickered as she heard another timbre in Kaeritha’s soprano.
A deeper timbre, like the basso rumble of cavalry gathering speed for a charge.
The blue corona flickering around Kaeritha blazed higher and hotter, towering over her as the luminously translucent form of Tomanāk Orfro, God of War and Justice, Captain General of the Gods of Light, took form to confront the spider of Shīgū.
The priestesses caught up in Shīgū’s web froze, as if stilled by some wizard’s spell, but although Paratha drew back ever so slightly, her hesitation was only brief and her mouth twisted like the snarl of some rabid beast. “Not this time, Scale Balancer,” she—or someone else, using her voice—hissed venomously. “This one is mine!” Her body tensed, and, on the last word, a deadly blast of power ripped from her.
It screamed across the audience chamber like a battering ram of yellow-green hunger, and the entire temple seemed to quiver on its foundations as it slammed into Kaeritha.
Or, rather, into the blue nimbus blazing about her.
The nimbus which deflected its deadly strength in a score of shattered streamers of vicious lightning that cracked and flared like whips of flame.
Small explosions laced the chamber’s walls, shattered fountains, and incinerated two of the living priestesses where they stood, and Kaeritha felt the staggering violence of the impact in her very bones.
But that was all she felt, and she smiled thinly at her foe. “Yours, am I?” she asked, and a strange sense of duality swept through her on the tide of Tomanāk’s presence. “I think not,” she repeated, and Paratha’s face twisted in mingled fury and disbelief as Tomanāk’s power shed the fury of her attack. Kaeritha’s smile was hard and cold, and she felt the call to battle throbbing in her veins.
She was herself, as she had always been, and the will and courage which kept her on her feet in the face of Shīgū’s hideous manifestation were her own.
But behind her will, supporting it and bolstering her courage like a tried and trusted battlefield commander, was Tomanāk Himself.
His presence filled her as Shīgū’s filled Paratha, but without submerging her.
Without requiring her subservience, or making her no more than His tool.
She was who she had always been—Kaeritha Seldansdaughter, champion of Tomanāk—and she laughed through the choking stench of Shīgū’s perversion. Paratha’s entire face knotted with livid rage at the sound of that bright, almost joyous laugh, and the spider snarled behind her.
But Kaeritha only laughed again. “Your reach exceeds your grasp, Paratha.
Or should I say Shīgū?” She shook her head. “If you think you want me, come and take me!” “You may threaten and murder my tools,” that voice hissed again, “but you’ll find Me a different matter, little champion.
No mortal can stand against My power!” “But she does not stand alone,” a voice deeper than a mountain rumbled from the air all about Kaeritha, and Paratha’s face lost all expression as she and the power using her flesh heard it. — Kaeritha discovered that almost too late, when Paratha’s headlong charge suddenly transmuted into a spinning whirl to her left.
The demented shriek had very nearly deceived Kaeritha into thinking her foe truly was maddened by rage, attacking in a mindless fury.
But Paratha was far from mindless, and she pivoted just beyond Kaeritha’s own reach, while her longer, glowing saber came twisting in in a corkscrew thrust at Kaeritha’s face. Kaeritha’s right hand parried the thrust wide, and their blades met in a fountaining eruption of fire.
Blue and green lightning crackled and hissed, exploding against the chamber’s walls and ceiling, blasting divots out of the marble floors like handfuls of thrown gravel.
She gasped, staggered by the sheer ferocity of what should have been an oblique, sliding kiss of steel on steel.
No doubt Paratha had felt the same terrible shock, but if she had, it didn’t interrupt her movement.
She was gone again, fading back before Kaeritha could even begin a riposte. Kaeritha’s entire right arm ached and throbbed, and sweat streaked her face as she turned, facing Paratha, swords at the ready, while alarm bells continued to clangor throughout the temple complex. “And what will you do when the other guards come, little champion?” Paratha’s voice mocked. “All they will see is you and me, surrounded by the butchered bodies of their precious priestesses.
Will you slay them, as well, when I order them to take you for the murderer you are?” Kaeritha didn’t reply.
She only moved forward, lightly, poised on the balls of her feet.
Paratha backed away from her, eyes lit with the glitter of hell light watching cautiously, alertly, seeking any opening as intently as Kaeritha’s own. Kaeritha’s gaze never wavered from Paratha, yet a corner of her attention stood guard.
She’d always had what her first arms instructor had called good “situational awareness,” and she’d honed that awareness for years.
And so, although she never looked away from her opponent, she was aware of the remaining unwounded priestess creeping ever so cautiously around behind her. Paratha gave no sign that she was aware of anything except Kaeritha, but Kaeritha had almost allowed herself to be fooled once.
Now she knew better.
And she also knew she had only one opportunity to end this fight before the guards Paratha had spoken of arrived.
If the major stayed away, settled for simply holding her in play until the guards burst in on them, she would be doomed.
So somehow, she had to entice the other woman into attacking her now . . .
Or convince the major that she’d tricked Kaeritha into attacking on her terms. Paratha slowed, letting Kaeritha close gradually with her.
Her saber danced and wove before her, its deadly, glowing tip leaving a twisting crawl of ugly yellow-green light in its wake, and Kaeritha’s nerves tightened.
The priestess with her poisoned dagger was close behind her, now, and Paratha’s glittering eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
If it was going to happen, Kaeritha thought, then it would happen— Now! The priestess sprang forward, teeth bared in a silent, snarling rictus, dagger thrusting viciously at Kaeritha’s unguarded back.
And in the same sliver of infinity, with the perfect coordination possible only when a single entity controlled both bodies, Paratha executed her own, deadly attack in a full-extension lunge. It almost worked.
It should have worked.
But as Tomanāk had told Shīgū, his champion was the equal of anything the Spider might bring against her.
Kaeritha had known what was coming, and she’d spent half her life honing the skills she called upon that day.
Perfectly as Paratha—or Shīgū—had orchestrated the attack, Kaeritha’s response was equally perfect . . .
And began a tiny fraction of a second before Paratha’s. She twisted lithely, turning her torso through ninety degrees, and lunged at Paratha in a consummately executed stop-thrust.
Her left-hand blade met the longer saber, twisting it aside in another of those terrible explosions of light and fury, then slid down its glaring length in a deadly extension that punched the blue caprisoned short sword through Paratha’s breastplate as if its hardened steel had been so much cobweb.
And even as she lunged towards Paratha, her right-hand sword snapped out behind her, and the priestess who’d flung herself at Kaeritha’s back shrieked as her own charge impaled her upon that lethal blade. For one instant, Kaeritha stood between her opponents, both arms at full extension in opposite directions, her sapphire eyes locked with Paratha’s hell-lit eyes of brown.
The other woman’s mouth opened in shocked disbelief, and her saber wavered, then fell to the floor with a crackling explosion.
Her left hand groped towards the cross guard of the sword buried in her chest and blood poured from her mouth. And then the instant passed.
Kaeritha twisted both wrists in unison, then straightened, withdrawing both her blades in one, crisp movement, and the bodies of both her opponents crumpled to the floor. Chapter Forty-Six The alarm bells continued to sound, and Kaeritha turned from her fallen enemies to face the audience chamber’s double doors.
Foul smelling smoke drifted and eddied, and small fires burned where the reflected bursts of contending powers had set furniture and wall hangings alight.
The walls, ceilings, and polished floors were pitted and scorched, and the windows along the eastern wall had been shattered and blown out of their frames.
Bodies—several as seared as the chamber’s -furnishings—sprawled everywhere amid pools of blood and the sewer stench of ruptured organs. The blue corona of Tomanāk continued to envelop her, and she knew any priestess who saw it—and who was prepared to think about it—would recognize it for what it was.
Unfortunately, it was unlikely that most of the temple’s regular guards would do the same.
Worse, she knew that although Shīgū’s avatar had been vanquished, the spider goddess’ residual evil remained.
Shīgū might have been considerate enough to concentrate most of her more powerful servants here in the Voice’s chambers for the attack on Kaeritha.
But she hadn’t concentrated all of them, and even if her remaining servants hadn’t hungered for revenge, they must know that their only chance of escaping retribution lay in killing or at least diverting Kaeritha. Her jaw tightened.
She knew what she’d do, if she’d been one of Shīgū’s tools faced by a champion of Tomanāk.
She would feed the uncorrupted members of Quaysar’s guard force straight into the champion’s blades, and the chaos and confusion and the fact that none of the innocents knew what was really happening would let her do exactly that.
Any champion would do all she could to avoid slaying men and women who were only doing their sworn duty, with no trace of corruption upon their souls.
And if, despite all she could do, that champion found herself forced to kill those men and women in self-defense, the Dark would count that a far from minor victory in its own right. But Kaeritha had plans of her own, and her sapphire eyes were grim as she kicked the chamber’s doors wide and stalked through them, swords blazing blue in her hands. The bells were louder in the corridor outside the Voice’s quarters, and Kaeritha heard sharp shouts of command and the clatter of booted feet.
The first group of guards—a dozen war maids and half that many guardsmen in Lillinara’s moon-badged livery—came around the bend at a run, and Kaeritha gathered her will.
She reached out, in a way she could never have described to someone who was not also a champion, and seized a portion of the power Tomanāk had poured into her.
She shaped it to suit her needs, then threw it out before her in a fan-shaped battering ram. Shouted orders turned into shouts of confusion as Kaeritha’s god-reinforced will swept down the corridor like some immense, unseen broom.
It gathered up those who were responding to what they thought was an unprovoked attack upon the temple and its Voice and simply pushed them out of the way.
Under other circumstances, Kaeritha might have found the sight amusing as their feet slid across the temple’s floor as if its stone were polished ice.
Some of them beat at the invisible wall shoving them out of Kaeritha’s path with their fists.
A few actually hewed at it with their weapons.
But however they sought to resist, it was useless.
They were shunted aside, roughly enough to leave bruises and contusions in some cases, but remarkably gently under the circumstances. Yet some of the responding guards were not pushed out of Kaeritha’s way.
It took them precious seconds to realize that they hadn’t been, and even that fleeting a delay proved fatal.
Kaeritha was upon them, her blue eyes blazing with another, brighter blue, before they could react, for there was a reason her bow wave hadn’t shunted them aside.
Unlike the other guards, these were no innocent dupes of the corruption which had poisoned and befouled their temple.
They knew who—or what—they truly served, and their faces twisted with panic as they found themselves singled out from their innocent fellows . . .
Within blade’s reach of a champion of Tomanāk. “Tomanāk!” Kaeritha hurled her war cry into their teeth, and her swords were right behind it.
There was no way to avoid her in the corridor’s confines, nor was there room or time for finesse.
Kaeritha crunched into them, blazing swords moving with the merciless precision of some dwarvish killing machine made of wires and wheels. Those trapped in front of the others lashed out with the fury of despair as they saw death come for them in the pitiless glitter of her eyes.
It did them no good.
No more than three of them could face her simultaneously, and all of them together would have been no match for her. Those in the rear realized it.
They tried to turn and flee, only to discover that the same energy which had pushed aside their fellows caught them like a tide of glue.
They couldn’t run; which meant all they could do was face her and die. — Her advance slowed as her fatigue grew.
Every ounce of willpower was focused on the next section of hall or waiting archway between her and her destination.
She was vaguely aware of other bells—deeper, louder bells, even more urgent than the ones which had summoned the guards to the false Voice’s defense—but she dared not spare the attention to wonder why they were sounding or what they signified.
She could only continue, fighting her way through the seemingly endless members of Quaysar’s Guard who had been corrupted. And then, suddenly, she entered the Chapel of the Crone, and there were no more enemies.
Even the innocent guards she had been pushing out of her way had disappeared, and the clangor of alarm bells had been cut short as though by a knife.
There was only stillness, and the abrupt, shocking cessation of combat. She stopped, suddenly aware that she was soaked with sweat and gasping for breath.
She lowered her blades slowly, bloody to the elbows, wondering what had happened, where her enemies had gone.
The sounds of her own boots seemed deafening as she made her way slowly, cautiously, down the chapel’s center aisle.
And then, without warning, the chapel’s huge doors swung wide just as she reached them. The bright morning sunlight beyond was almost blinding after the interior dimness through which she had clawed and fought her way, and she blinked.
Then her vision cleared, and her eyes widened as she saw a sight she was quite certain no one had ever seen before. She watched the immense wind rider dismount from the roan courser.
Despite his own height, his courser was so enormous that it had to kneel like a Wakūo camel so that he could reach the ground.
He wore the same green surcoat she wore, and the huge sword in his right hand blazed with the same blue light as he turned and the courser heaved back to its feet behind him.
She stared at him, her battle-numbed mind trying to come to grips with his sudden, totally unanticipated appearance, and his left hand swept off his helmet.
Foxlike ears shifted gently, cocking themselves in her direction, and a deep voice rumbled like welcome thunder. “So, Kerry, is this after being only for those with formal invitations, or can just anyone be dropping in?” She shook her head, unable to make herself quite believe what she was seeing, and stepped out through the chapel doors two of the Quaysar war maids had swung wide.
The temple courtyard seemed impossibly crowded by the score or so of coursers and wind riders behind Bahzell.
Most of the wind riders were still mounted, interposing with their coursers between the remainder of the Quaysar Guards and the chapel.
Two of them weren’t.
Baron Tellian of Balthar and his wind-brother Hathan had dismounted behind Bahzell, and Kaeritha shook her head in disbelief as she realized that over half of the still mounted “wind riders” were hradani. “Bahzell,” she said in a voice which even she recognized was far too calm and remote from the carnage behind her, “what are you doing here? And what are you—or any hradani—doing with a courser, for Tomanāk’s sake?” “Well,” he replied, brown eyes gleaming with wicked amusement, “it’s all after being the letter’s fault.” “Letter?” She shook her head again. “That’s ridiculous.
My letter won’t even arrive at Balthar for another day or two!” “And who,” he asked amiably, “said a thing at all, at all, about your letter?” It was his turn to shake his head, ears tilted impudently. “It wasn’t from you, being as how it’s clear as the nose on Brandark’s face that you’ve not got the sense to be asking for help before you need it.
No, this one was after coming from Leeana.” “Leeana?” Kaeritha parroted. “Aye,” Bahzell said a bit more somberly. “She’d suspicions enough all on her own before ever you came back to Kalatha from Thalar.
She’d written a bit about them to her Mother, but it was only after you and she spoke that she was sending the lot of her worries to the Baroness.
I was away—I’d a bit of business in Warm Springs as needed looking after—but I’d had a hint as you might be after needing a little help.
So when I returned to Hill Guard, the Baroness showed me Leeana’s letters.” He shrugged. “As soon as ever I read them, it was pikestaff clear as how I’d best be on my way to Quaysar.
I’m hoping you won’t be taking this wrongly, Kerry, but charging in here all alone, without so much as me or Brandark to watch your back, was a damned-fool hradani sort of thing to be doing.” “It was my job,” she said, looking around for something to wipe her blades on.
Tellian silently extended what looked like it had once been part of a temple guard’s surcoat.
She decided not to ask what had happened to its owner.
Instead, she simply nodded her thanks and used it to clean her swords while she continued to gaze up at Bahzell. “And I never once said as how it wasn’t,” he replied. “But I’m thinking you’d be carving bits and pieces off of my hide if I’d gone off to deal with such as this without asking if you’d care to be coming along.
Now wouldn’t you just?” “That’s different,” she began, and broke off, recognizing the weakness of her own tone as Bahzell and Tellian both began to laugh. “And just how is it different, Kerry?” another, even deeper voice inquired, and Kaeritha turned to face the speaker. Tomanāk Himself stood in the courtyard, and all around her people were going to their knees as His presence washed over them.
Wind riders slid from their saddles to join them, and even the coursers bent their proud heads.
Only Kaeritha, Bahzell, and Walsharno remained standing, facing their God, and He smiled upon them. “I’m still waiting to hear how it’s different,” He reminded her in gently teasing tones, and she drew a deep breath as His power withdrew from her.
It left quickly, yet gently, flowing back through her like a caress or the shoulder slap of a war captain for a warrior who’d done all that was expected of her and more.
There was a moment of regret, a sense of loss, as that glorious tide flowed back to the one from Whom it had come, yet her contact with Him was not severed.
It remained, glowing between them, and as He reclaimed the power He had lent her, she found herself refreshed, filled with energy and life, as if she’d just arisen in the dawn of a new day and not come from a deadly battle for her very life and soul. “Well, maybe it’s not,” she said after a moment or two and with a fulminating sideways glower for Bahzell. “But it still wasn’t Leeana’s place to be telling you I needed help!” “No more did she,” Bahzell said. “All she wrote was what she suspected—not that it was after taking any geniuses to know what such as you were likely to be doing about it if it should happen as how she was right.” He shrugged. “All right,” Kaeritha said after another pregnant moment. “But that still leaves my other question.” “And which other question would that be?” Tomanāk asked. “The one about him and him,” she snapped, -jabbing an index finger first at Bahzell and then at the huge -stallion who stood regarding her over her fellow champion’s shoulder with what could only be described as an expression of mild interest.
She glared back at him, and then her eyes widened as she Saw the glowing tendrils of blue light that linked the immense stallion not simply to Bahzell, but directly to Tomanāk.
She opened her mouth, then changed what she’d been about to say.
There were some questions, she thought, that needed to be discussed in private first. “The question,” she said instead, “of what a hradani—any hradani, but especially a Horse Stealer hradani—is doing with a courser? I thought they, um, didn’t like one another very much.” “Ah, now, I don’t think it’s my business to be telling that particular tale,” Tomanāk told her with a slow smile.
He chuckled at the disgusted look she gave Him, then turned His head, gazing about the temple courtyard.
There were dozens of bodies lying about, Kaeritha realized—all that was left of the corrupted members of the Quaysar Guard who’d tried to prevent Bahzell and his wind brothers from fighting their way to her aid.
Tomanāk gazed at them for several seconds, then shook His head with a sad sigh. “You’ve done well, Kaeritha.
You and Bahzell alike, as I knew you would.
I believe this temple will recover from Shīgū’s interference, although you’ll still have your work cut out for you in Kalatha.
My Sister will be sending two or three of her Arms to aid you in that work, but this is still a matter of Justice, and so falls under your authority . . .
And responsibility.” “I understand,” she said quietly, and he nodded. “I know you do.
And I know I can count upon you and Bahzell to complete all the tasks you’ve been called to assume.
But for today, my Blades, enjoy your victory.
Celebrate the triumph of the Light you’ve brought to pass.
And while you do,” He began to fade from their sight, His face wreathed in a huge smile, “perhaps you can get Bahzell to tell you how a Horse Stealer became a wind rider.
It’s well worth hearing!” He finished, and then He was gone. “Well?” Kaeritha turned to her towering sword brother and folded her arms.
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