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Wind Rider's Oath: Chapter Five
Last updated: Saturday, February 7, 2004 00:16 EST
It was raining again, and no mere drizzle this time, either.
It seemed to do an awful lot of that on the Sothoii Wind Plain, Kaeritha thought.
She leaned one shoulder moodily against the deep-cut frame of a tower window, folded her arms across her chest, and stared out across Hill Guard Castles battlements at the raindrops falling silver spears. The sky was the color of wet charcoal, swirled by gusty wind and lumpy with the weight of rain not yet fallen, and the temperature was decidedly on the cool side. Not that it wasnt immensely preferable to the bone-freezing winter shed just endured.
Thunder rumbled somewhere above the cloud ceiling, and she grimaced as a harder gust of wind drove a spray of rain in through the open window. She didnt step back, though. Instead, she inhaled deeply, drawing the wet, living scent of the rain deep into her lungs. There was a fine, stimulating feel to it, despite the chillone that seemed to tingle in her bloodand her grimace faded into something suspiciously like a grin as she admitted the truth to herself.
It wasnt the rain that irritated her so. Not really. As a matter of fact, Kaeritha rather liked rain. She might have preferred a little less of it than the West Riding had received over the past several weeks, but the truth was that this rain was simply part and parcel of the real cause of her frustration. She should have been on her way at least two weeks ago, and instead shed allowed the rain to help delay her travel plans.
Not that there hadnt been enough other reasons for that same delay. She could come up with a lengthy list of those, all of them entirely valid, without really trying. Helping Bahzell and Hurthang steer the Hurgrum Chapter safely through the rocks and shoals of Sothoii public opinion, for example . . . or impressing the error of their ways on the local bigots. Those had certainly been worthwhile endeavors. And so had lending her own presence as another, undeniably human, champion of Tomanak to Bahzells diplomatic mission. Unfortunately, she had to admit that however useful her efforts might have been, they were scarcely indispensable. No, her reasons for continually postponing her departure were beginning to turn into something entirely too much like excuses for her taste. Which meant that, rain or no rain, it was time she was on her way. Besides
Her thoughts broke off as a tall, red-haired young woman rounded the passageway corner with a hurried stride that was just short of a trot. The newcomer, who came to an abrupt halt as she caught sight of Kaeritha, was both young and quite tall, even for a Sothoii noblewoman. At fourteen, she was already at least six feet talltaller than Kaeritha herself, who was considered a tall woman, by Axeman standardsand she was also beginning to show the curves of what promised to be an extraordinarily attractive womanhood.
Her expression was a curious blend of pleasure, half-guilt, and semi-rebellion . . . and her attire of the moment was better suited to a second under groom than an aristocratic young lady, Kaeritha thought wryly. She wore a worn pair of leather trousers (which, Kaeritha noted, were becoming more than a bit too tight in certain inappropriate places) under a faded smock which had been darned in half a dozen spots. It also showed several damp patches, and there were splashes of mud on the girls riding boots and the thoroughly soaked poncho hanging over her left arm.
Excuse me, Dame Kaeritha, she said quickly. I didnt mean to intrude on you. I was just taking a shortcut.
Its not an intrusion, Kaeritha assured her. And even if it were, unless Im mistaken, this is your familys home, Lady Leeana. I imagine its appropriate for you to wander about in it from time to time if it takes your fancy.
She smiled, and Leeana grinned back at her.
Well, yes, I guess, the girl said. On the other hand, if Im going to be honest about it, the real reason Im taking a shortcut this time is to stay out of Fathers sight.
Oh? Kaeritha said. And just how have you managed to infuriate your father so badly that you find it necessary to avoid his wrath?
I havent infuriated him at all . . . yet. But Id like to get back to my quarters and changed out of these clothes while thats still true. Kaeritha cocked her head, her expression questioning, and the girl shrugged. I love Father, Dame Kaeritha, but he gets, well, fussy if I sneak out to go riding without half a dozen armsmen clattering around behind me. She made a face. And he and Mother are both beginning to insist that I ought to dress as befits my station. This time she rolled jade-green eyes with a martyred sigh, and Kaeritha was hard put not to chuckle.
However annoying it may be, she said instead, with commendable seriousness, they probably have a point, you know. Leeana looked at her skeptically, and Kaeritha shrugged. You are the only child of one of the four most powerful nobles of the entire Kingdom, she pointed out gently, and men like your father always have enemies. Youd make a powerful weapon against him in the wrong hands, Leeana.
I suppose youre right, Leeana conceded after a moment. Im safe enough here in Balthar, though. Even Fathers willing to admit that, when he isnt being stuffy just to make a point! And, she added in a darker tone, its not as if Im not a weapon against him anyway.
I dont think thats exactly fair, Kaeritha said with a quick frown. And Im certain thats 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 doesnt, but that doesnt really change anything, Dame Kaeritha. Do you have any idea how many people want him to produce a real heir? She grimaced. The entire Kings Council certainly goes on at him enough about it whenever he attends!
Not the entire Council, Im sure, Kaeritha objected, her eyes widening slightly as she sensed the true depth of bitterness Leeanas normally cheerful demeanor concealed.
Oh, no, Leeana agreed. Only the ones who dont have sons they think are just the right age to marry off to the heir to Balthar and the West Riding. Or dont think theyre still young enough for the job themselvesthey 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 Tomanak, Leeana, Kaeritha said wryly, but Im also an Axewoman, not a Sothoii. Tomanak! She laughed. As far as that goes, Im 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 dont have that much first-hand experience with them.
Leeana appeared to have a little difficulty with the idea that a belted knightand a champion of Tomanak, into the bargaincould 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 its bad enough. You do know how Sothoii inheritance laws work, dont you?
That much I have down, in general terms, at least, Kaeritha assured her.
Then you know that while I cant legally inherit Fathers titles and lands myself, theyll pass through me as heir conveyant to my own children? Assuming he doesnt produce a son after all, of course.
Kaeritha nodded, and Leeana shrugged.
Since our enlightened customs and traditions wont permit a woman to inherit in her own right, whatever fortunate man wins my hand in matrimony will become my regent. Hell govern Balthar and hold the wardenship of the West Riding in my name, until our firstborn son inherits fathers titles and lands. And, of course, in the most unfortunate case that I might produce only daughters, heor the husband of my eldest daughterwould 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 its 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 wont 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 dont want him to set Mother aside probably hope theyre the ones who will catch the plum.
Kaeritha nodded slowly, gazing into the younger womans dark green eyes. Tellian Bowmasters 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 whod ever laid eyes on them.
And if it hadnt 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 Kaerithas midnight-blue eyes for several silent seconds, and her voice was even softer than Kaerithas 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 girland to her parents, for that matterbut that wasnt 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 towers 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 hed 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 dont believe anyones 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, its uncanny . . . and it worries my men. Phrobus! It worries me, sometimes!
I apologize, Milord, Kaeritha said with a small smile. Its 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, Ive not heard yet that champions of Tomanak werent supposed to be after being uncanny.
Thats 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 its 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, isnt it?
It is that. Heartfelt agreement rumbled in Bahzells deep voice as he leaned back in his chairspecially built by Tellians master woodworker to Bahzells size and weightand gazed across the neat ranks of chessmen at the human host who was technically his prisoner. And I hope you wont be taking this wrongly, Baron, but its in my mind that those of your folk whod sooner see my head on a pike are after getting a mite more . . . vocal about it.
Youre talking about those idiots Kaeritha trounced at the temple the other day? Tellian asked, and Bahzell nodded.
Those, and those like them whore after being a bit more discreet, as you might be saying, he agreed a trifle grimly. And Im not so easy in my mind about those problems biting Lord Festians backside, either. Tellian raised an eyebrow, and Bahzell shrugged. Ive no doubt theres always enough political infighting to be going around amongst you Sothoiithere certainly is amongst any other lot of noblemen Ive ever heard aught about! But Im thinking that theres 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 didnt expect anything else to happen?
Of course not, Bahzell said. Not that thats after making it any more pleasantor keeping my shoulder blades from itching whenever daggers are aboutnow that its here.
On the other hand, Kaeritha observed mildly, nobody ever said being a champion of Tomanak 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 Tomanaks lips.
I can well believe that. Tellian shook his head. Its bad enough being a simple baron without having a god looking over my shoulder all the time!
Thats as may be, Bahzell said, but Im thinking it wasnt all that simple for you, either, when we ran up against each other in the Gullet.
Oh, I dont know about that. Tellian leaned back in his chair and smiled. If nothing else, at least Ive assured that Ill go down in history. After all, how many men have ever managed to surrender to a force they out numbered twenty or thirty times over?
I have a feeling youll go down in history for more than just that, Milord, Kaeritha said. But Bahzell does have a point, you know. Those louts trying to goad Thalgahr into the Rage knew exactly what they were doing. And I dont think they came up with the idea spontaneously all on their own. They werent bright enough for that! Which suggests that someone is orchestrating events a bit carefully this time. Is it possible you might actually have an enemy somewhere, Milord? she asked in an elaborately innocent tone.
Oh, I suppose anything is possible, Tellian said wryly. Do you think I should look into the matter?
If you dont have anything better to do, she agreed. In the meantime, however, Im afraid its past time I was off on one of those pleasure jaunts Bahzell and I were never promised.
Ah? Bahzell cocked his head. And has Himself been talking to you again, Kerry?
Not directly. She shook her head. On the other hand, He doesnt speak directly to me as often as He seems to speak to you.
Perhaps, Brandark murmured in the tone of one in whose mouth butter would adamantly refuse to melt, thats because it doesnt require something quite that, um . . . direct to get through to you.
I wouldnt know about that, Kaeritha said primly, and her blue eyes twinkled as Bahzell made a rude gesture at his friend. But, she went on, He does have His own ways of getting messages through to me. And the one Im getting now is that Ive been sitting around your house too long, Milord.
My house has been honored by your presence, Dame Kaeritha, Tellian said, and this time his voice was completely serious. I would be most pleased for you to remain here however long you like. And while I know a champions duties take precedence over all other considerations, could you not wait at least until the rain stops?
Does the rain ever stop on the Wind Plain, Milord? Kaeritha asked wryly.
Not in the spring, Bahzell replied before Tellian could. It may be after pausing a bit, here and there, though.
Bahzell is right, Im afraid, Tellian confirmed. Winter weather is worse, of course. They say Chemalka uses the Wind Plain to test Her foul weather before She sends it elsewhere, and I believe it. But spring is usually our rainiest season. Although, to be fair, this ones been rainier than most, even for us.
Which Im sure will be doing wonderful things for the grass and crops, assuming as how it doesnt wash all of them away before ever they sprout. But that wont be leaving you any drier right this very moment, Kerry, Bahzell observed.
Ive been wet before. Kaeritha shrugged. I havent melted or shrunk yet, and I probably wont this time, either.
I see youre serious about leaving, Tellian said, and she nodded. Well, Im not foolish enough to try to tell a champion of Tomanak her business, Milady. But if He insists on sending you out in such weather, is there at least anything I can do to assist you on your way?
It might help if you could tell me where Im going, Kaeritha said ruefully.
I beg your pardon? Tellian looked at her as if he half suspected her of pulling his leg.
One of the more frustrating consequences of the fact that He doesnt talk to me as directly as He does to Bahzell here, Kaeritha told him, is that my directions are often a bit less precise.
Well, Bahzell does require as much claritynot to say simplicityas possible, Brandark put in with a wicked grin.
Just you be keeping it up, little man, Bahzell told him. Im sure its an impressive splash youll make when someone kicks your hairy arse halfway across the moat.
This castle doesnt have a moat, Brandark pointed out.
It will as soon as Ive finished digging one for the occasion, Bahzell shot back.
As I was saying, Kaeritha continued in the tone of a governess ignoring her charges obstreperousness, I havent really received any specific instructions about exactly what Im supposed to be doing here.
I should think that helping to destroy an entire temple of Sharna and to establish a brand-new chapter of your order amongst Bahzells peoplenot to mention playing some small part in preventing that idiot Redhelm from committing all of us to a disastrous warconstitutes a worthwhile effort already, Tellian observed.
Id like to think so, Kaeritha agreed with a small smile. On the other hand, I was already headed this direction before Bahzell ever came along. Not that I knew exactly why then, either, of course. But one thing I do know, Milord, is that He doesnt normally leave His champions sitting around idle. Swords dont accomplish much hanging on an armory wall. So its time I was about figuring out whatever it is He has in mind for me next.
Youve no clue at all? Bahzell asked.
You know Him better than that, Kaeritha replied. He may not have actually discussed it with me, but I know that whatever it is, it lies east of here.
With all due respect, Dame Kaeritha, Tellian pointed out, three-quarters of the Wind Plain lies east of here. Would it be possible for you to narrow that down just a bit more?
Not a great deal, Im afraid, Milord. She shrugged. About all I can say is that Im probably within a few days travelcertainly not more than a weeks or soof where Im supposed to be.
While it would never do to criticize a god, Tellian said, it occurs to me that if I attempted to plan a campaign with as little information as He appears to have provided you, Id fall flat on my arse.
Champions do require a certain . . . agility, Kaeritha agreed with a wry smile. On the other hand, Milord, thats usually because Hes careful to avoid leading us around by the hand. Tellian quirked an eyebrow at her, and she shrugged again. We need to be able to stand on our own two feet, she pointed out, and if we started to rely on Him for explicit instructions on everything were supposed to be doing, how long would it be before we couldnt accomplish anything without those instructions? He expects us to be bright enough to figure out our duty without His constant prompting.
And Himself is after having His own version of a sense of humor, as well, Bahzell put in.
And that. Kaeritha nodded.
Ill take your word for that, Tellian said. You two are the first of His champions Ive ever personally met, after all. Although, to be honest, I have to admit I harbor a few dark suspicions about how typical the pair of you are. Bahzell and Kaeritha both grinned at him, and he shook his head. Be that as it may, he continued, Im afraid I cant really think of anything to the east of herewithin no more than a few days travel, at leastthat would seem to require a champions services. If I did know of anything that serious, I assure you that Id already have been trying to do something about it!
Im sure you would, Milord. But thats frequently the way it is, especially when the local authorities are competent.
Im not sure Id consider someone who could let that idiot Redhelm come so close to succeeding competent, Tellian said a bit sourly.
I doubt anyone could have stopped him from making the attempt, Kaeritha objected. You could scarcely have stripped him of his authority before he actually abused it, after all. And once you discovered that he had, you acted promptly enough.
Barely, Tellian grumbled.
But promptly enough, all the same, Bahzell said. And, if youll pardon my saying so, Im thinking that betwixt us its been effective enough, as well. So far, at least.
It certainly has, Kaeritha agreed. But my point, Milord, is that champions frequently end up dealing with problems which have succeeded in hiding themselves from the local authorities attention. Often with a little help from someone like Sharna or one of his relatives.
You think whatever it is youre here to deal with is that serious? Tellian sat up straight in his chair, his sudden frown intense. That there could be another of the Dark Gods at work here on the Wind Plain?
I didnt say that, Milord. On the other hand, and without wanting to sound paranoid, Bahzell and I are champions of one of the Gods of Light. Tomanak doesnt have that many of us, either, so we tend not to get wasted on easy tasks. She grimaced so wryly that Tellian chuckled. Of course, a great deal of what we do in the world requires us to deal with purely mortal problems, but we do see rather more of the Dark Gods and their handiwork than most people do. And the Dark Gods are quite accomplished at concealing their presence and influence.
Like Sharna in Navahk, Brandark agreed grimly.
Well, yes, but Tellian began, then stopped. His three guests looked at him expressionlessly, and he had the grace to blush.
Forgive me, he said. I was about to say that that was among hradani, not Sothoii. But I suppose that sort of It couldnt possibly happen to us thinking is what does let it happen, isnt it?
Its certainly a part of it, Kaeritha said. But infections are always hard to see before they rise to the surface. She shrugged. One of a champions functions is to bring things to a head and clean the wound before it gets so bad that the only alternative is amputation, Milord.
A charming analogy. Tellian grimaced, but it was obvious he was thinking hard. He leaned back in his chair, the fingers of his right hand drumming on the armrest, and distant thunder rolled and rumbled beyond the library while he pondered.
I still cant think of anything that seems serious enough to require a champion, he said finally. But as you and Bahzelland Brandarkhave all just pointed out, that doesnt necessarily mean as much as Id like to think, so Ive been trying to come up with anything that may have seemed less important to me than it actually is. If you can delay your departure for perhaps another day or two, Kaeritha, Ill spend some time going over the reports from my local lords and bailiffs to see if there is something I missed the first time around. Right off the top of my head, though, the only ongoing local problem Im aware of is the situation at Kalatha.
Kalatha? Kaeritha repeated.
Its a town a bit more than a weeks ride east of here, Tellian told her. I realize you said you were within a few days of whatever your destination is, but you could probably make the trip in five days if you pushed hard on a good horse, so I suppose it might qualify.
Why is it a problem? she asked.
Why isnt it a problem? he responded with a harsh chuckle. She looked puzzled, and he shrugged. Kalatha isnt just any town, Milady. It holds a special Crown charter, guaranteeing its independence from the local lords, and some of them resent that. Not just because it exempts the Kalathans from their taxes, either. He smiled crookedly. The reason it holds a free-city charter in the first place is because Lord Kellos Swordsmith, one of my maternal great-great-grandfathers, deeded it to the war maidswith the Crowns strong approvalover two centuries ago.
Kaerithas eyes narrowed, and he nodded.
The war maids arent so very popular, he said with what all of his listeners recognized as massive understatement. I suppose we Sothoii are too traditional for it to be any other way. But for the most part, theyre at least respected as the sort of enemies you wouldnt want to make. However much they may be disliked, very few people, even among the most convinced traditionalists, are foolish enough to go out of their way to pick quarrels with them.
And that isnt the case at the moment with Kalatha? Kaeritha asked.
That depends on whose version you accept, Tellian replied. According to the local lords, the Kalathans have been encroaching on territory not covered by the town charter, and theyve been confrontational and hostile to efforts to resolve the competing claims peaceably. But according to the war maids, the local lordsand especially Trisu of Lorham, the most powerful of themhave been systematically encroaching upon the rights guaranteed to them by their charter for years now. Its been going on for some time, but theres always something like this. Especially where war maids are concerned. And its worse in Kalathas caseinevitably, I suppose. Kalatha isnt the largest war maid free-town or city, but it is the oldest, thanks to my highly principled ancestor. I like to think he didnt realize just how much of a pain in the arse he was going dump on all his descendants. Although, if he didnt, he must have been stupider than Id prefer to think.
Kaeritha had started to ask another question, but she paused almost visibly at the barons tone. It would have been too much to call it bitter or biting, but there was a definite edge to it. So instead of what shed been about to ask, she nodded.
I agree it doesnt sound like an earthshaking problem, she said. On the other hand, I have to start somewhere, and this sounds like it might very well be the place. Especially since each of Tomanaks champions has hisor herparticular . . . specialties, call them.
Tellians brow furrowed, and Kaeritha chuckled.
Any of us are expected to be able to handle any duty any of His champions might encounter, Milord, but we each have our own personality traits and skills. That tends to mean were more comfortable, or effective, at least, serving different aspects of Him. For example, Bahzell here is obviously most at home serving Him as God of War, although hes done fairly well serving Him as God of Justice. For someone whos most at home breaking things, anyway.
She grinned at Bahzell, who looked back affably, with an expression which boded ill for the next time they met on the training field.
My own reasons for joining His service, though, she went on, returning her attention to Tellian, had more to do with a burning thirst for justice. She paused and frowned, eyes darkening with old and painful memories, then shook herself. Thats always been the aspect of Him Im most comfortableor happiest, anywayserving, and my talents and abilities seem best suited to it. So if theres a legal dispute between this Kalatha and the neighboring nobility, it certainly seems like a logical place for me to start looking. Can I get a map to show me how to find it?
Oh, I can do better than that, Milady, Tellian assured her. Kalatha may hold a Crown charter, but Trisu and his neighbors are my vassals. If you can wait until the end of the week to depart, Ill make some additional inquiries and provide as much background information as I can. And of course Ill send along letters of introduction and instructions for them to cooperate fully with you during your visit.
Thank you, Milord, Kaeritha said formally. That would be very good of you.
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