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War Maid's Choice: Chapter Eight
Last updated: Wednesday, May 30, 2012 23:23 EDT
< Do you think that if I asked Dathgar to just sort of nudge his horse — you know, just hard enough to knock him out of the saddle — he’d stop that racket? > Walsharno asked rather wistfully in the back of Bahzell’s mind.
“Now isn’t that a dreadful thing to be asking?” Bahzell replied, quietly enough not even another hradani could have overheard him. “And him doing all he can to wile away the leagues and all!”
< You do realize coursers’ ears are even more sensitive than yours, don’t you? > The mental voice was considerably more tart this time, and Bahzell chuckled, glancing ahead to where Brandark rode easily in the saddle, strumming his balalaika.
The musical tastes of individual coursers, he had discovered, varied at least as widely as those of the individual members of the Races of Man, and Walsharno’s ran more to stately measures which relied heavily on woodwinds, viols, and cellos. He was not a fan of balalaika music, and he had even less taste for the dwarves’ latest musical invention. They called it a “banjo,” and Brandark was already showing what Walsharno considered a most unhealthy interest in the infernal new device. If he was going to be honest, Bahzell shared his courser brother’s reservations where Brandark’s new attraction was concerned, but the Bloody Sword’s current selection didn’t bother him anywhere nearly as badly as it obviously bothered Walsharno. At least he wasn’t playing the “Lay of Bahzell Bloody Hand.” That was something, Bahzell reflected. And he wasn’t singing, either, which was even better. In fact, taking everything together, and considering how much worse it could always get, Walsharno shouldn’t be complaining at all.
< I wouldn’t dream of “complaining.” I’m only thinking about helping him have a little accident. >
“Oh, and isn’t that ever so much better? I’m not so sure at all, at all, as how a champion of Tomanak should be thinking such things.”
< And you don’t? >
“Ah, but it’s only mortal I am, when all’s said,” Bahzell replied mournfully. “And I never said as how I’d never the slightest temptation of my own, come to that. The spirit’s willing enough, but somehow ”
He shrugged, and Walsharno snorted in amusement. Baron Tellian heard that snort and turned his head, raising one eyebrow quizzically. No wind rider could hear another courser’s voice, but all of them got quite adept at reading courser body language.
“Brandark?” the baron asked, gray eyes gleaming appreciatively.
“I’m sure I’ve no idea at all what it might be you’re referring to, Milord,” Bahzell replied innocently.
“I thought I’d heard somewhere that champions of Tomanak weren’t supposed to lie,” Tellian observed to no one in particular, and Walsharno snorted again, louder than ever. He also tossed his head in an unmistakable nod.
“Traitor,” Bahzell said wryly.
< Nonsense. Is it my fault I recognize the truth when I hear it? >
“It’s not really all that bad,” Tellian said thoughtfully. “And at least he’s not singing. That’s something.”
< Two minds with but a single thought, > Walsharno said, and Bahzell chuckled.
“Truth to tell, though I’d not like to be admitting it to him, you understand, the little man’s not so bad as all that when he plays. In fact, he’s better than most, if it comes down to it.”
“Agreed. It just seems wrong, somehow. Or perhaps the word I really want is frivolous.”
Tellian gazed up at the brilliant blue sky and the white drifts of cloud blowing about its polished dome. The day, for a change, was both dry and not too oppressively hot, with a breeze that was just short of brisk blowing out of the north behind them as they headed south along the Balthar-Sothofalas high road. It was over two hundred leagues from Balthar to King Markhos’ capital as the bird might have flown — just under two hundred and sixty for road bound mortals — and they were roughly halfway to their destination. This particular stretch of road was better maintained than many of the Kingdom’s highways, largely because it lay in the West Riding and both Tellian and his father had made a point of seeing to the proper upkeep of the high roads passing through their riding, but it was still intended for horses and coursers, not heavy foot traffic or freight wagons. Instead of the broad, paved stone of the Empire of the Axe, it had a surface of river gravel, theoretically rolled level and bordered with wide shoulders of firm, hoof-friendly turf. Even in Balthar, the gravel surface left quite a bit to be desired, especially where the ravages of winter had not yet been repaired, but it was wide enough, and Tellian’s escort had stretched out a bit, moving towards its western edge to take advantage of the band of shade projected by the trees along that side of the road as the sun moved towards afternoon.
All Sothoii high roads, like most of those in the Empire of the Axe, for that matter, were bordered by carefully planted rows of trees intended to provide windbreaks, shelter, and firewood for travelers forced to bivouac along the way. The penalties for casually felling those trees were stiff, but fallen limbs and branches were another matter, and the road crews thinned and tended them every year when they repaired the ravages of winter. The trees they took down were sawn into convenient lengths, with the thicker logs split, and stacked in neat wood piles at semiregular intervals for travelers’ convenience. Combined with natural deadfalls, that was enough to keep most travelers from poaching on the living wood for fuel, and over the centuries, the neat rows of saplings had turned into gradually wider and wider belts of towering trees. Some of them were as much as three feet in diameter at the base, and Bahzell could hear the songs of birds and the rapid, drilling tattoo of a woodpecker through the rippling notes of Brandark’s balalaika.
Tellian Bowmaster was far less self-important than many a man in his position might have been. In fact, left to his own preferences, he would have made this trip without fanfare, preferably accompanied by only Hathan Shieldarm, his wind brother, and Bahzell, Brandark, and Vaijon. That, unfortunately, was out of the question for one of the Kingdom’s four great barons, especially now, and so he was accompanied instead by no less than thirty armsmen and ten pack horses loaded with the camping gear, provisions, and other paraphernalia for a party that size. (An Axeman noble probably would have used wagons; a Sothoii nobleman, painfully familiar with the Kingdom’s roads, knew better than to try any such thing.) The armsmen in question wore the boiled leather armor and cuirasses of typical Sothoii light cavalry, and however unassuming Tellian might have preferred to be, the men of his personal guard hadn’t been selected at random. They rode easily and comfortably, relaxed in their saddles, but their eyes were busy and alert, watching for any threat even here.
“It makes me feel like a troupe of traveling actors,” Tellian grumbled now. “I mean, he’s playing drinking songs! When he isn’t playing something better suited to a brothel, that is. I mean, did he have to treat us to ‘The Madam’s Cross-Eyed Daughter,’ of all things? Couldn’t he at least play something serious?”
“Fair’s fair, Milord,” Vaijon put in with a grin. “I’d say your armsmen are enjoying the music. Of course, I could always get one of them to ask him for something more serious. Like, oh,” he glanced at Bahzell, blue eyes dancing, “what was the name of that song It’s on the tip of my tongue. Something Bloody Hand, wasn’t it?”
“And if you were to be so foolish as to put any such notion into his head, it’s in my mind you’d likely come to a nasty end, my lad.”
“It might be an improvement after all, though, Bahzell,” Tellian said helpfully.
“That it wouldn’t be,” Bahzell informed him firmly. “Besides, I know it’s been a while, but I’m not so sure as how your lads are really all that happy even yet with that verse of his about the ‘Battle of the Gullet.’ It might just be that if he was after starting in on that one they’d be having a thing or three to say to him about it.”
“That was the entire idea, Bahzell,” Vaijon explained.
< And a good one, too, > Walsharno said helpfully.
“I heard that!” Brandark called, never turning his head as he rode along in front of them. “And I’ve been working on another little piece, Vaijon. It’s about a human who ends up running a chapter of the Order of Tomanak full of hradani.”
“Oh, it is, is it?” Vaijon grinned. “Go ahead — I’d love to hear it! But if you do, then next time I set out on a trip with you, I’m bringing along the dancing girls and the troupe of acrobats to help you entertain.”
“I’ve a feeling the lads wouldn’t be all that happy about the acrobats, Sir Vaijon,” Tarith Shieldarm, the commander of Tellian’s escort, said. “But the dancing girls, now — they might not be so very bad an idea.”
“Yes, they would be a bad idea, Tarith,” Tellian told him. “Especially when Baroness Hanatha heard about them!”
Tarith laughed, and Bahzell was glad to hear it. Tarith was a first cousin of Hathan Shieldarm, Tellian’s wind brother. He and Hathan had both been armsmen in the baron’s service when Hathan bonded with Gayrhalan, and Tarith had taken over Tellian’s personal guard when Sir Charyn Sabrehand, who’d commanded it for over ten years, finally retired. Before that, though, he’d been Leeana Bowmaster’s personal armsman, and he’d taken Leeana’s flight to the war maids hard. He and Hathan were both naturally and intensely conservative by inclination, and Tarith had always been one of those Sothoii who thought war maids were “unnatural.” He’d been stubbornly unwilling to accept that the young woman he’d watched over literally from her birth — the young woman he loved as if she’d been his own daughter — could have done such a thing. It had turned him dark and bitter for entirely too long, and for years he’d blamed Dame Kaeritha for not stopping Leeana before she could ruin her own and her parents’ lives that way.
His expression the first time he’d seen Leeana in chari and yathu on a visit to Hill Guard had been almost physically painful to watch, and he’d quickly turned and disappeared into the barracks. Bahzell had seen the hurt in Leeana’s eyes as she’d watched him vanish, but he’d scarcely been the only inhabitant of Balthar to react that way. Still, he did seem to have come to terms with it, by and large, over the last couple of years, and it might just be that some of his prejudices against the “unnatural” war maid way of life had faded in the process. He still seemed acutely uncomfortable around her on her fleeting visits, as if all the habits of fourteen or fifteen years of watching over her remained steadfastly at war with what she had become. And, like someone else Bahzell could have mentioned (although for rather different reasons), he managed persistently to find reasons he had to be somewhere else during those visits. Yet the wounded look had disappeared from his eyes, and taking over Tellian’s personal guard had helped.
He’d even learned to admit that he still loved Leeana, no matter what she’d done with her life, Bahzell thought.
< And about damned time, too, > Walsharno agreed. < You two-foots spend an awful lot of time worrying about other two-foots’ “mistakes”! Think how much wear and tear you could avoid if you only let them do what they want with their lives. >
The courser had a point, Bahzell reflected. Of course, it was different for the coursers with their herd sense. Each courser was an individual, but all of them shared a sort of corporate awareness that left far less room for misunderstandings and hurt feelings than the Races of Man seemed to manage so effortlessly. Not that one courser couldn’t develop a lively dislike, even hatred, for another one, but no courser would have questioned Leeana’s right to do whatever she chose with her own life.
< No, we wouldn’t have, > Walsharno agreed. < And we wouldn’t waste so many years of our lives denying our love for someone, either, > he added rather more pointedly. < No matter who they were or what they’d done. >
Bahzell looked down at the back of the courser’s head for a moment, but Walsharno didn’t turn to look back at him. Not even his ears moved as he continued calmly along, and Bahzell turned his attention back to Tellian.
“Surely you’re not thinking as how one of your very own personal armsmen would be after running off to the Baroness to be telling her such as that, are you, Milord?” he asked out loud.
“If they wouldn’t, Dathgar would,” Tellian retorted. “Yes, and she’d bribe the traitor with as many apples as he could eat, too!”
Dathgar snorted loudly and shook his head hard enough to set every bell on his ornamental halter chiming, and Bahzell heard Walsharno’s mental laugh.
< Dathgar says he’d hold out for at least a feed bag full of sugar, > he explained, and Bahzell chuckled as Tellian shook his head in smiling disgust at his companion’s treason.
< I’m glad he finally let you do something about that cough of his, > Walsharno said more seriously as he and his rider watched Tellian. < I still don’t like the way it was hanging on. >
I wasn’t so very happy about it myself, Bahzell replied silently.
< No, and you thought the same thing I thought about it. >
The courser’s mental voice was sharp, and Bahzell shrugged without replying. Neither he nor Walsharno could quite shake the suspicion that Tellian’s “cough” had been entirely too persistent. Bahzell had chosen not to make an issue of it, but he’d also conducted his own quiet yet very thorough investigation. If anyone had been responsible for helping that cough along, however, he’d failed to find any trace of it among Hill Guard’s inhabitants. That wasn’t the sort of thing it was easy to hide from a champion of Tomanak, either, which ought to have put their suspicions to rest.
< It certainly would be convenient for a great many people if something permanent were to happen to him, > Walsharno pointed out, and Bahzell had to agree. On the other hand, they couldn’t blame everything that happened on Tellian’s enemies. There were such things as a genuine accident or coincidence, after all.
< Of course there are. I’m sure that’s the reason you and Vaijon — oh, and the Baroness — gave him so much trouble about that armor he decided not to wear, too. >
The irony in Walsharno’s mental voice should have withered half the Wind Plain, and Bahzell’s ears flicked in acknowledgment. They had tried to convince Tellian to take the precaution of wearing his own armor for the trip, only to have him decline. His argument that the extra weight would have been a needless burden for Dathgar had been specious, to say the least, given any courser’s strength and stamina not to mention the fact that Dathgar had agreed with the others, not him. His fallback argument that it was hot, sweaty, and damnably uncomfortable had at least a modicum of plausibility about it, but the real reason was pride.
Now that’s being a mite unfair of you, my lad, Bahzell told himself sternly. Aye, he’s prideful enough, and of no mind to look like a man as jumps at shadows, too. But he’s a point or three about keeping those as wish him ill from thinking as how they’ve frightened him, and it may be as how he’s wishful to keep his own men from thinking so. Which is even dafter than worrying his head about its weight! There’s not a man amongst ‘em but knows he’s guts enough for four or five. Aye, and wishes he had the sense to go with ‘em, as well!
“– still think the ‘Lay of Bahzell Bloody Hand’ would be the best choice,” Vaijon was saying. “He wouldn’t have to sing, you know. I’m sure your armsmen all know the words by heart by now, Milord! They could avoid any little verses they didn’t care for, and a few rousing choruses as we ride along would have to make the journey seem shorter.”
“Aye, that it would,” Bahzell agreed genially. “And a mite shorter for some than for others, though we’d not all be reaching the same destination.”
“I don’t understand why you’re so sensitive about it, Bahzell,” Vaijon teased. “It’s not every man whose noble deeds are known to every wandering minstrel in half of Norfressa!”
“Only half?” Brandark turned to look back at them, shaking his head. “I see I really have to get back out on the road!”
“You just go on laughing, the lot of you,” Bahzell said. “There’s a saying amongst my folk — that as goes around, comes around, and it’s in my mind I’ll have my day soon enough. Aye, and it’s looking forward to it, I am.”
The others only grinned at him, and he shook his head, then glanced up towards the westering sun. It would be sliding towards the horizon in another three or four hours, he estimated, but the last milestone they’d passed indicated a sizable village or small town lay no more than ten or twelve miles ahead. Personally, he actually preferred making camp on the road, since inn beds tended to be more than a little cramped for someone his height. Sothoii averaged considerably taller than most humans, but they still weren’t Horse Stealer hradani, and their furniture simply wasn’t sized to fit someone like him. For the others, though –
His thoughts paused, and he felt his ears flattening. For a moment, he wasn’t sure what had caught his attention, but then it came to him. The woodpecker had stopped its tattoo and the birds who’d been singing among the trees had stopped. No, they hadn’t all stopped, only the ones along the eastern side of the road.
< Brother — ! > he heard Walsharno begin in the depths of his brain, and the courser’s head was swinging to the right, as well.
“Ware right!” he shouted, and Walsharno was surging forward, swinging to face that silent sweep of trees, moving between them and Tellian as the first venomous arrow shafts came sizzling out from under them.
Something buzzed viciously past Bahzell’s ear. Something else struck his breastplate like a mallet and bounced away, ripping the green surcoat of the Order of Tomanak and scoring a bright line across the polished steel. He heard shouts of alarm, screams, the bark of almost — almost — instant commands from Tarith, and he flung himself from the saddle. He hit the ground already running, followed by Walsharno’s bitter, wordless protest, but the courser knew better than to voice his complaint, for whoever had chosen the ambush site had chosen well. Those trees were simply too dense for something Walsharno’s size, even with a courser’s impossible agility. There were too many places under their branches where a man with a blade could get close enough to use it, and there was no place at all where Walsharno could have made use of his speed and size.
“Come!” Bahzell cried, and a five-foot blade answered his summons, materializing in his right hand even as he charged towards that impenetrable wall of trees. His fingers closed on the familiar, wire-wound hilt, and his left hand found the basket-hilted dagger at his belt.v“Tomanak!” he heard Vaijon’s shout and knew the other champion was no more than a stride or two behind him. More arrows whizzed past him and a human voice cried out — in agonized denial, not pain, this time — but he had no time for that. The shade of the trees reached out to him, and he saw the muted gleam of steel as someone rose out of the shadows before him.
The warcry bellowed out of his own thick throat, and the sword in his hand — a massive, two-handed weapon for any merely human arm — lashed out in a lightning thrust that ended in a gurgling shriek as a foot and more of glory blade drove clean through his victim’s chest.
The spasming weight slid off his sword, but another assailant came at him from the left. He engaged the newcomer’s saber with his dagger, twisting his wrist, locking the blades together. He drove the human’s sword out and to the side as he recovered his main weapon, and more steel rang and clashed beside him as another unfortunate assassin found himself face-to-face with Vaijon of Almerhas.
There were more of them than he’d thought, Bahzell realized, and slammed a knee into his opponent’s crotch. The other man saw it coming and twisted, managing to block with his thigh, but he was a foot and a half shorter than Bahzell. The brutal force of the blow lifted him off the ground and knocked him back several feet, and Bahzell saw his face twist in horror as he realized the hradani had gained enough space for his swordarm. He threw his own left arm up in a futile blocking gesture just in time for that enormous blade to come down, sheer through his forearm, and half sever his head in a fountain of blood.
Bow strings were still twanging, but not as many of them, and at least a half dozen more men were coming at Bahzell and Vaijon. Most of them seemed to be armed with the normal Sothoii saber, but others carried shorter, heavier blades, and he saw at least one battleaxe among them. He gave back a step, falling into place with Vaijon on his left, and his own sword came thundering down in a brutal, overhead stroke that split a man’s head from crown to chin. He kicked the body aside as two more attackers split up, trying to come at him from both flanks at once, but then the one on his right turned with a panicky expression as Brandark came hurtling into the fight. Unlike Vaijon and Bahzell, the Bloody Sword was unarmored, yet that made him no less deadly, and the man who’d turned to face him went down with a high, wailing scream as Brandark opened his belly.
Steel clanged and belled, grunts of effort turned into screams of anguish, and a dozen of Tellian’s armsmen surged into the woods on Brandark’s heels. No Sothoii would fight on foot if he had any choice at all, and no one would ever confuse them with properly trained infantry when they did. For all their mounted discipline, individualism was the order of the day when they simply had to fight on foot. But these Sothoii had profited from exposure to Bahnak of Hurgrum’s infantry, and they’d taken the lesson to heart. They hit the woods as an organized unit, driving in under the branches, and they’d brought their light shields with them.
There was something hard and dangerous about the way they shouted their warcries, something with more than the usual Sothoii ferocity behind it, and the sounds of combat were ugly as they slammed into the ambushers. There were no more bows firing now; there was only the desperate clash of steel, screams, and somewhere on the other side of the trees the thunder of hooves as at least some of the attackers got to their horses.
He cut down another opponent. Then another, and they were no longer coming at him. Instead, they were trying desperately to get away, and he felt the Rage, the bloodlust of his people, rising within him. But the Rage had become his servant, not his master, over the years, and he controlled it with the ease of long practice as he, Vaijon, and Brandark hammered forward on their enemies’ heels.
Someone on the other side was shouting orders. Bahzell took down yet another of the attackers and chanced a look in the direction of all the noise, and his eyes narrowed as he saw a small knot of archers who still retained their bows. They were clustered around the one doing all the shouting, and the loud fellow was pointing urgently in the direction of the road. The archers raised their bows, taking careful aim at whoever he was pointing out, and Bahzell threw his dagger in a flat, vicious arc.
It was a long throw, especially left handed, even for Bahzell Bahnakson, but the blade flickered in sunlight and shadow as it flashed straight to its mark. It went home with a grisly, meaty thud, driving quillon-deep in his target’s collarbone. Over two inches of bloody steel projected from the man’s back, his commands died in a gurgling crimson spray, and the sheer force of the dagger’s impact lifted him from his feet and hurled him into two of the archers who’d been listening to him.
That was enough for all those archers. Whatever force of will their leader had used to hold them together vanished with his death. They scattered, most of them discarding their bows so they could run faster, and Bahzell smiled in satisfaction through the cold, icy focus of the Rage. An assassin who’d been coming at him saw that smile and tried frantically to brake, but he was too late. Before he could stop, he ran into a steel whirlwind that crashed through his feeble attempt to parry and split his skull.
“Oath to Tomanak!” someone shouted. “Oath to Tomanak!”
“Damn it!” Brandark grated. “I hate it when they do that!”
Bahzell grunted a harsh, unamused laugh, but the Bloody Sword only snarled.
“You think they’d show the least damned bit of interest in letting us surrender if we were the ones shouting it?” he demanded as the man he’d been about to skewer threw away his sword and raised his hands.
“Likely not,” Bahzell conceded. Another of the ambushers went to his knees, and the Horse Stealer grunted again — this time in disgust — as the gripped the man by the nape of the neck and lifted him back to his feet. His unfortunate captive squealed in pain as he was hauled onto his toes and Bahzell half-threw and half-shoved him back towards the high road.
“I’m thinking you’d best not do one damned thing I could be taking as breaking your oath,” he told the would-be assassin, and the man nodded desperately. Another one of the attackers tried to fade into the shadows, only to freeze as Bahzell cocked his head at him.
“You just go on running,” the hradani encouraged coldly. “Those as don’t come quiet when they’ve given oath to Tomanak, why, they’re not protected by it, now are they?”
The human stared at him wide-eyed for a moment, then nodded even more violently than Bahzell’s first prisoner and started stumbling back towards the high road himself. Vaijon had rounded up a prisoner of his own, and Brandark sent the man who’d surrendered to him hurrying after the others with the Bloody Sword’s sword tip prodding him to encourage more speed.
The time compression of combat never ceased to astonish Bahzell, even after all these years. The fight had seemed to last at least an hour, yet the whole thing had taken mere minutes. But they’d been bloody minutes, and his jaw tightened and his ears flattened as he came out of the trees and saw the carnage.
Eight or nine of Tellian’s armsmen were down on the roadway where the initial volleys of arrows had slashed into them, but men were smaller targets than horses. At least a dozen of their mounts had been hit by arrows intended for their riders, and equine screams of pain tore at his ears with that special heart-rendering intensity of wounded horses without the ability to understand why they’d been hurt. Battle hardened or not, Bahzell had never been able to listen to those screams without hearing the beasts’ pleas for someone to explain, someone to make it go away. Here and there armsmen had already cut the throats of mortally wounded horses. It was second nature to any Sothoii — their duty to the horses who served them so loyally — and not one of Tellian Bowmaster’s armsmen would have even considered seeing to his own hurts until he’d seen to those of his mount. Nor would he flinch from doing his responsibility to end that uncomprehending agony when he must. It was one of the things Bahzell most liked about them, and –
< Quickly, Brother! >
Bahzell’s head snapped up at Walsharno’s mental cry. The unbreakable link between them would have told him if the courser had been wounded, and he and Walsharno had learned not to distract one another on those occasions when one or both of them had to enter battle without the other. But now the raw, burning urgency of Walsharno’s summons burned through him and he turned quickly, then froze.
Dathgar was down. The huge bay had been hit by at least four arrows, and there were limits to even a courser’s vitality. His coat was saturated with blood, his sides heaved weakly, and bloody froth blew at his nostrils. He tried to raise his head feebly, eyes glazed, and Tellian lay half under him, unconscious, with two snapped-off arrow shafts standing out of his chest. His right leg was twisted, obviously broken where Dathgar’s weight had smashed down on it, and Hathan was on his knees beside him, trying desperately to staunch the bleeding, while two more of Tellian’s armsmen knelt over Tarith.
“Do you be taking Dathgar!” Bahzell said sharply to Walsharno. The stallion nodded, and Bahzell looked over his shoulder. “Brandark –”
“I’ll keep an eye on these bastards,” Brandark promised him, brown eyes grim as he glared at the prisoners. “Go!”
It was Bahzell’s turn to nod, and Hathan looked up with desperate eyes as the enormous Horse Stealer went down on one knee beside him.
“I can’t stop the bleeding!” the wind rider said.
“Aye, I can be seeing that,” Bahzell said grimly. Behind him, he sensed Vaijon heading for Tarith, but all of his own attention was focused on the dying man pinned under the dying courser. “Leave him to me,” he told Hathan. “You be drawing those arrows out of Dathgar for Walsharno!”
“But –” Hathan began, then chopped himself off. “Of course,” he said instead, his voice harsh, and Bahzell touched the shaft of the arrow which had driven into Tellian no more than an inch or two from his heart.
I’m thinking if ever I needed you, I’m needing you now, he thought, his eyes closing briefly as he reached out to that inner link which glowed between him and the god he served like some glittering golden chain or an inextinguishable torch blazing against the dark. This is a good mana friend.
There were no words from Tomanak this time, only that comforting sense of the god’s presence, that feel of two huge hands settling on Bahzell’s shoulders. Warmth spread into him out of them, warmth he needed badly as he saw the damage, heard the wet, weak wheeze of the baron’s breathing while blood bubbled from his nostrils, and realized Tellian was no more than half a breath, possibly two, from slipping away to Isvaria’s table.
But that was as far as he was going, Bahzell told himself with all the grim, iron purpose which had made him a champion of the god of war, and felt Tomanak’s strength fill him as he opened himself once more to the power of his deity.
His eyes opened again, focused and clear with purpose, and blue light crackled around his hands. He laid the palm of his left hand flat on Tellian’s feebly moving chest, and that blue light flowed out from it, flooding across the baron like a layer of azure ice. It flickered and glowed, burning more brilliantly than the afternoon sunlight, lighting Bahzell’s face from below, embracing Tellian like a shield, and Bahzell reached out with it. He felt Tellian’s flickering life force try to sink away from him, and he refused to let it. He locked the grip of his own will upon it, drawing on Tomanak’s power to forbid its extinction, and his right hand gripped that broken arrow shaft and pulled.
The broad headed arrow ripped out of Tellian’s chest with a wet, ghastly sound, making the terrible wound still worse. Blood pumped from rent and torn flesh, and Bahzell reached for the other arrow. This one had driven into the baron’s ribs, and bone and cartilage crunched and tore as he wrenched it out of that dying body. He threw it away and his sword reappeared in his bloody hand — reversed, this time — as he summoned it back to him once more. He closed his eyes again, leaning his forehead against the sword’s quillons, left hand still pressing against Tellian’s almost motionless chest, and reached out to the brilliant presence of his god.
Bahzell Bahnakson had healed many times in the years since he’d first become Tomanak’s champion. He’d faced the challenge of torn flesh, of poison, even of the touch of Krahana herself, and he recognized the smile of hollow-eyed death when he saw it. He recognized it and he threw his own bared-teeth challenge in its face.
The blue light wrapped around his left hand swept up his arm, enveloped his torso, blazed up about him like a forest fire, and he knelt at its heart, eyes closed, emptying himself of everything except the power of Tomanak and his own fierce, stubborn refusal to let the enemy who had become his friend go. He closed his mind to the picture of Tellian’s broken, bloody body. He closed his ears to the baron’s failing, gasping effort to breathe. Those things were no longer real, no longer mattered. Instead, he filled himself with the image of Tellian as he should be. Of Tellian laughing as they discussed Brandark’s music. Tellian frowning thoughtfully as he leaned forward across a map, discussing strategy. Tellian smiling across the breakfast table at Baroness Hanatha, looking up with his heart in his eyes as his disgraced war maid daughter returned to Hill Guard Castle for her first visit. Tellian sipping whiskey on the first visit any Sothoii baron had ever paid to a hradani warlord as Prince Bahnak welcomed him to Hurgrum. Of Tellian strong and determined and whole once more.
Bahzell forged that image from memories, from hopes, from friendship from love. He made it be, demanded it, rejected any other possibility, and when it had filled him, when there was no room in him for anything else, he gave himself to it. He poured everything he was, everything that made him who he was, into that reality, and the levin of Tomanak’s cleansing, healing power ripped through him like a hurricane. It exploded down his arm, erupted around the hand on Tellian’s chest, swept outward down that tree-lined high road like a thunderbolt. For an instant — one, fleeting moment — Bahzell Bahnakson and Tomanak were truly one, fused into that eruption of purpose, power, and determination.
It didn’t last. It couldn’t last for longer than one heartbeat, or perhaps two. Yet it lasted long enough, and Bahzell felt Tellian’s chest heave convulsively under his palm. The baron sucked in a deep, wracking breath, then coughed convulsively. His faltering, flickering heart surged within his chest, and his eyelids fluttered. Then they rose, gray eyes unfocused, the blood from his nostrils clotting his mustache.
“Dathgar,” he whispered, and Bahzell sagged back on his heels, every muscle drained, filled with the joyous, wondering exhaustion of being allowed to be a bearer of life, not death.
Something snorted beside him, and he looked down, then smiled as Dathgar’s ears shifted, pricking forward. The hradani looked up, saw the same joyful exhaustion in Walsharno’s eyes, and let the hand Walsharno didn’t have rest on Dathgar’s neck.
“There, now,” he told the courser. “Don’t you be doing anything hasty. It’s work enough Tomanak and I had putting him back together, so just you bide a bit. Let’s not be breaking him all over again getting off of him!”
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