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War Maid's Choice: Chapter Nine
Last updated: Wednesday, June 6, 2012 21:44 EDT
Well, that’s disappointing, and in more ways than one, Master Varnaythus thought glumly, gazing into his gramerhain as a huge, bloodstained bay courser rolled very, very cautiously off of Tellian Bowmaster.
The courser took three tries to make it back to his feet, and two more coursers moved in on either side, leaning their shoulders against him to help him stay there. It was obvious he needed the help, but he stood there stubbornly, refusing to move until Tellian had been helped back to his feet, as well. The baron was pale, clearly at least as shaky as his courser and just as soaked with blood, but he leaned on Bahzell Bahnakson’s arm and reached up to caress the courser’s ears.
Dathgar lowered his head, resting his nose gently, gently on his rider’s shoulder, and Tellian threw both arms around his neck, leaning into him. It was all very touching, Varnaythus thought with a sour expression, but it would have been ever so much more satisfactory if at least one of them had been standing disconsolately over the other’s dead body.
And we came so close to getting both of them, that’s what really pisses me off. He shook his head. I’d almost rather have missed them completely than to have come that close and fallen short! Damn it, I thought Salgahn was better than that!
He wasn’t really being fair, and he knew it. He also didn’t care. He sat back, arms folded, glowering at the gramerhain as Bahzell left Tellian to Dathgar while he joined Vaijon in seeing to the other wounded. Without Salgahn, Arthnar Fire Oar’s assassins would never have come as near to successes they had, and he knew it. For that matter, he hadn’t really expected he and the dog brother would be able to talk the River Brigands’ warlord into even making the attempt! It had been worth suggesting to both him and Cassan, though, and no doubt the sizable bag of gold which had passed from the South Riding to Krelik had quite a bit to do with the fact that Arthnar had been willing to run the risk.
Well, that and the fact that he’d been able to hire his killers without their ever realizing who was actually paying them.
That was deft of him, Varnaythus acknowledged grudgingly. And he thought of that part without even any prompting from Salgahn. Of course, Cassan may not think it was all that clever once Bahzell gets around to interrogating his prisoners.
The wizard had presented Salgahn to Fire Oar as a Sothoii renegade who’d been sufficiently familiar with Tellian’s movements and habits to provide the sort of inside information that might make a successful assassination possible. As he’d hoped, that had inspired Arthnar to use Salgahn to organize the attempt itself, but he hadn’t expected the twist Arthnar had come up with. Arthnar himself had retained his anonymity as their ultimate employer, since it would have struck any interrogator as highly suspicious, in the unfortunately probable event that any of the assassins were taken alive, if the assassins’ ultimate paymaster hadn’t concealed his identity. But he’d instructed Salgahn to emphasize his Sothoii accent when he recruited them and to casually “let fall” the fact that he was in the service of an undisclosed Sothoii noble. Salgahn had never actually said he was working for Cassan or Yeraghor, of course, but assuming Tellian followed up on what the surviving would-be assassins could tell him, there wasn’t much question who he was going to end up blaming for it. And Cassan could hardly argue that it had been Fire Oar, not him, without facing the embarrassing question of just how he knew it had been Fire Oar.
Not too shabby, Varnaythus admitted. Get paid by someone to be his deniable assassin, then avoid drawing suspicion yourself by arranging things so that the fellow who paid you is the one people are most likely to suspect! I think I may have to revise my estimate of Arthnar’s capabilities upward. And however pissed off I am, I also have to admit he came closer to getting Tellian than anyone else has! Of course, a lot of that was due to Salgahn. Too bad he won’t be around to make any other attempts. He shook his head. I’m beginning to understand why the dog brothers are so reluctant to go after Bahzell, given how uniformly fatal their failures have been so far. Who would have thought even Bahzell could throw a dagger that far and that accurately with his off hand? But, damn it, I really thought this time he was going to pull it off!
The truth was, the wizard thought, blanking his gramerhain with an impatient wave, that if it hadn’t been for the presence of not simply one, but no less than three champions of Tomanak, either Tellian or Dathgar would definitely be dead. And if one of Salgahn’s men had managed to get an arrow or two into Bahzell or Vaijon — or even Bahzell’s Phrobus-damned courser! — Varnaythus would have counted the operation a resounding success, despite the dog brother’s spectacular demise.
But they hadn’t, and it wasn’t, which turned the attempt into an equally resounding failure. Although, now that he thought about it, increasing Tellian’s suspicions of Cassan would probably be worthwhile in its own right. After all, it wasn’t that the Dark Gods actually needed Cassan to win; they only needed him to destroy the Kingdom’s cohesion trying to win. In fact, it would actually suit them even better to see the entire Kingdom dissolve into something like that interminable bloodletting in Ferenmoss. Twenty or thirty years of civil war, preferably with enough attention diverted to break up Prince Bahnak’s experiment in hradani unity, would be just about perfect from his Lady’s perspective.
Well, since you never expected them to succeed in the first place, at least the fact that they didn’t hasn’t dislocated any of your own plans, he told himself as philosophically as he could. And you should probably make sure Cassan finds out about this as soon as you can do it without raising any suspicions about just how you learned about Arthnar’s failure that quickly. Not that a little delay couldn’t be useful. He smiled unpleasantly. After all, it’ll give you more time to decide exactly how you want to let Cassan know about Arthnar’s misdirection. It never hurts to add a bit of salt to the wound when it comes to sowing dissension, now does it?
< So there you are at last, > Walsharno said as Bahzell Bahnakson stepped out of the village inn’s back door. A cool, still dawn drifted under the towering oak which shaded the inn, and the hradani stretched hugely, foxlike ears half-flattened while he yawned, as the courser ambled over to greet him.
“And a good morning to you, too,” Bahzell said, recovering from his yawn and reaching out to rub Walsharno’s nose. “I’m hoping you had a restful evening?”
< It’s a hard, hard life, > Walsharno said mournfully, raising his head to lip playfully at the hradani’s ears. < Some people get nice, snug roofs overhead, and other people get left out in the freezing cold all night long. >
“Freezing is it, now?”
Sunlight was already slanting golden shafts through the leaves overhead, promising plenty of warmth to come, and Bahzell chuckled and patted the side of Walsharno’s neck.
< Well, it could have been. In fact, it could have been raining or snowing for all you’d know about it, and if it had, I still would’ve been outside in it! > Walsharno returned with spirit. < It’s not like I would’ve fitted into that wretched little stable, at any rate! >
“And no more did I fit into that ‘wretched little’ bed,” Bahzell pointed out. “It’s a hard floor that bedchamber has!”
He reached back to knead the small of his back, and someone laughed behind him. He turned his head, looking over his shoulder, and smiled as Hathan Shieldarm joined him and Walsharno.
“Making you feel guilty, is he?” Hathan asked.
“Oh, not so much as all that,” Bahzell demurred with a grin.
“But not for lack of trying. Is that what you mean?”
< Tell him a champion of Tomanak doesn’t resort to trickery to get what he wants, > Walsharno said.
“Now that I won’t.” Bahzell shook his head with a laugh. “First, because it’s a fearful lie it would be, and, second, because he’d not believe a word of it.”
Walsharno snorted and shoved hard enough with his nose to stagger even the massive hradani, and Hathan laughed. He obviously didn’t need to actually hear what Walsharno had said to make a pretty shrewd guess about its content. He started to say something else, then paused and turned his head, shading his eyes with one hand as another courser — this one an iron gray, smaller (though no courser would ever actually be called “small”) than Walsharno and obviously at least a few years older — came drifting over.
“Good morning, Gayrhalan,” Bahzell said courteously, and the newcomer snorted with a very horselike head shake before he nodded to the hradani.
There’d been a time when Bahzell Bahnakson had not been Gayrhalan’s favorite person in the world. Those days were long gone, but Hathan’s courser had been well named. “Storm Souled” — that was what Gayrhalan meant — and the gray’s temper was as stormy as his name suggested.
Despite which, he whinnied like a child’s pony in delight as Hathan reached into his belt pouch and extracted a large lump of maple sugar.
“Greedy!” the Sothoii said as Gayrhalan lipped the sugar delicately from his palm. The courser ignored the charge with lordly hauteur and crunched the sugar loudly.
< It’s nice to see that some wind riders actually appreciate their brothers, > Walsharno observed.
“Ha!” Bahzell shook his head. “‘Appreciate,’ is it, now? More a matter of who’s after being under whose hoof, I’m thinking!”
“That sort of honest evaluation isn’t going to make you any friends, Milord Champion,” Hathan said.
“Aye,” Bahzell sighed and shook his head again, his expression mournful. “It’s a hard lot, this being an honest man. There’s never an end to the trouble it can be landing a fellow in! If I’d the least notion then where it would be taking me, I’d not have fallen so easy for Himself’s little invitation. I mean, when it comes to the sticking point, what’s one wee little demon one way or the other compared to a man’s spending his whole life long speaking naught but the truth? And me a hradani, to boot.”
Hathan laughed. But then he gave Gayrhalan’s neck one last pat and turned to face Bahzell fully, and his expression was far more serious than it had been.
“Gayrhalan says Dathgar’s strength is coming back nicely. Has Walsharno spoken with him this morning?”
< Yes, I have, > Walsharno replied, and from the strength of his mental voice Bahzell knew he was speaking simultaneously to Gayrhalan, as well. < I think he’s almost fully recovered, although I’m none too enthusiastic about putting that to the test just yet. > He shook his mane and blew heavily. < He’s not so young as he used to be, and I don’t think it would hurt a thing for him to have another day or so of rest before we head on to Sothofalas. >
Hathan’s eyes had narrowed as he listened to Gayrhalan relaying Walsharno’s comments. Now he smiled and nodded his head vigorously, but his expression was quizzical.
“I don’t know that I’d like to be the one suggesting to Dathgar that he might be getting a bit past it,” he said, regarding Walsharno with a raised eyebrow. “In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t, even if I were a somewhat younger fellow than him and a champion of Tomanak. Having said that, though, I agree there’s no need to rush getting back on the road. And not just for Dathgar’s sake, either.”
“Well, I’ll not deny it’s easier I’d be in my own mind if it so happened we could convince Tellian of the same thing,” Bahzell acknowledged. “Mind, champion of Tomanak or no, I’ve no mind to be suggesting to him as how he’s ‘getting a bit past it, either,’ if it’s all the same to you.”
“I think that would be an excellent thing to avoid doing,” Hathan agreed fervently. “In fact, I can’t think of anything you could possibly say that would be more likely to inspire him to insist on leaving before breakfast!”
< There’s no need to do anything of the sort. > Walsharno flipped his ears in the courser equivalent of a shrug when Bahzell and Hathan looked at him. < We’ll just suggest to Dathgar that it would be better for Tellian to rest for another day or two — and, of course, that we don’t want anyone telling Tellian that, given how stubborn he is. And then we’ll suggest exactly the same thing to Tellian about Dathgar. > He flipped his ears again. < They’ll both jump for it the same way Gayrhalan jumps for sugar. >
“Sure, and a sad thing it is to see such deceitfulness so early in the morning,” Bahzell sighed.
< Oh? > Walsharno cocked his head, examining his wind brother with one skeptical eye. < And do you have a better idea? >
“That I don’t,” the hradani conceded cheerfully. “And it’s no quarrel I have with deceitfulness so long as it’s after working, when all’s said.”
“From your lips to Tomanak’s ears,” Hathan said feelingly. “And if convincing the two of them to go easy on each other doesn’t work, we can always add Tarith. For that matter, I’m pretty sure we could convince him to hobble around for a day or two — with a properly stoic expression, you understand — to convince Tellian he needs the rest!”
“No doubt,” Bahzell agreed.
Hathan reached up to rub Gayrhalan’s nose again for several seconds, then looked back at Bahzell and Walsharno, and his expression was far more serious than it had been.
“Things were a bit hectic yesterday,” he said. “I’m not sure I got around to thanking the two of you for saving Tellian’s and Dathgar’s lives. If I didn’t, I should have.” His eyes darkened with emotion. “I knew they were both gone, and all I could think of was telling Hanatha. I think it would have killed her, too, you know.”
“I’m thinking she’s a stronger woman than that,” Bahzell disagreed. “Still and all, it’s happier I am we’ve no need to find out one way or the other.”
“The gods know I agree with you there!” Hathan said. “When you pulled those arrows out of his chest, Bahzell I was afraid you were going to finish him off on the spot!” He shook his head. “Of course, I knew even then that we were going to lose him anyway if you couldn’t heal him, but still –!”
“I’ll not deny it gave me a twinge or two,” Bahzell admitted. “Yet I couldn’t be leaving them where they were, and there was no time at all, at all, for being gentle about it.”
“No, and I knew it at the time. For that matter, I had to do the same thing with Dathgar!”
< And a good thing he did, too, > Walsharno said, looking at Gayrhalan. < Tell him he was my hands, Gayrhalan. Without him, we’d have lost Dathgar for certain. >
Hathan cocked his head as he listened to the other courser relaying that to him. Then he nodded to Walsharno with a courteous formality.
“It was my honor,” he said quietly. “But we were all lucky to have the two of you and Vaijon along! Toragan only knows how many we would’ve lost without you.” His mouth tightened. “For that matter, it was bad enough with all the three of you could do.”
“That it was.”
Bahzell’s ears flattened and his eyes darkened. Not even a champion of Tomanak could recall someone who’d already crossed the wall between life and death, and seven of Tellian’s armsmen had made that journey before he or Vaijon could summon them back. Walsharno had helped with that effort as much as he could, but one thing he and Bahzell had learned over the years since he’d become the very first courser champion of Tomanak was that there were differences in their healing abilities.
Bahzell wasn’t entirely certain why that was so, but they’d discovered that Walsharno’s ability to heal coursers or horses was far stronger than Bahzell’s and that Bahzell’s ability to heal the Races of Man was greater than Walsharno’s. They’d discussed the difference often, and they’d come to the conclusion that the difference lay in who — and what — they were. The degree to which any champion of Tomanak could succeed in a healing depended in large part upon how completely and deeply he could visualize his patient’s restoration and how deeply into that patient’s soul and innermost being he could reach. Coursers and the Races of Man were simply different from one another in some deep and fundamental ways, and that affected how deeply and intimately they could fuse with those they sought to heal, become the essential bridge between the hurt and dying and Tomanak.
Whatever the reason, Walsharno was plainly better than Bahzell at healing coursers or their smaller equine cousins while Bahzell was better at healing fellow hradani and humans. That was why Bahzell had concentrated on saving Tellian and entrusted Dathgar to Walsharno. It was also why Walsharno had lent his strength to Bahzell and Vaijon, putting all his driving will behind them as they’d plucked as many of the wounded back from death as they could. They’d done all any man could do, and without Walsharno’s aid they would have lost still more of them. Bahzell and his wind brother both knew that, and so did Vaijon, yet the hradani also knew it would be a long time before any of them fully forgave themselves for having lost so many.
< Don’t be silly, > a deep, rumbling voice said in the back of his brain. < You did well — all of you. But there are limits to what even my Swords can accomplish. >
And I’d've done still better if I’d spent less time making bad jokes and more seeing what it was the lot of us were riding into, Bahzell thought grimly.
< Or if I’d taken you by the hand and warned you about it. Or if Tellian had been wearing armor the way he ought to have been. Or if it had been raining, instead of sunny, and their bow strings had stretched in the wet. Or if an earthquake had swallowed them up or they’d been nibbled to death by tree frogs. > The voice of Tomanak Orfro took on a decidedly testy edge, and Bahzell had a mental image of his deity standing there with his hands on his hips and a stern light in his eyes. < Oh, and while we’re on the subject of “if,” if Walsharno had been able to maneuver under those trees and if the both of you had had wings. Have I left anything out? Or do the two of you have something else to feel guilty about? >
Bahzell started to reply, then stopped himself.
< Better, > Tomanak snorted in the spaces of his mind, and the god’s voice turned a bit gentler, though its edge didn’t disappear entirely. < Done is done, my Sword. All I’ve ever asked of you is that you do your best — which you always have — and not even I can undo the past. You know why that is, and I think you might bear that in mind when you consider your own actions and their consequences. I have nothing against remorse when it’s merited, Bahzell, but there’s something a little childish about blaming yourself for being merely mortal, and that’s what you’re doing when you go borrowing guilt for things not even a god can change. >
Bahzell felt a twinge of resentment at being called “childish,” but it disappeared as quickly as it had come. After all, Tomanak was the God of Truth. Which was undoubtedly the very reason the word had stung.
I’ll try to be bearing that in mind, he thought a bit tartly. In the meantime, though, would it be as how you’ve any more to be telling us?
< No, > Tomanak replied. < Too many threads are flowing together here, with far too many possible outcomes. Even if I were tempted to give you more detail, it would be too likely to simply confuse the issue for you — possibly even make you hesitate at a critical moment. I can tell you this, though: you were right about Tellian’s cough. I know you never found who was poisoning him, Bahzell, but that’s because you couldn’t look in the right place. >
Bahzell frowned for a moment. Then his eyes widened, and he sensed Tomanak’s nod.
< That was the first sign that the Dark Gods have decided to take an active hand again, > he confirmed. < And if the truth be known, Carnadosa’s a much shrewder adversary than Sharna or Krahana, and far closer to sane than Shigu’s ever been. Nor is she so arrogant as to confront us without careful planning and all the support she can muster. Watch yourselves, Bahzell, Walsharno. You can’t begin to reckon how dearly Phrobus and all his children would love to see the two of you dead. >
< Could you tell us why they’ve waited this long to try again? > Walsharno asked.
< I can’t tell you all the reasons, > Tomanak replied after a moment. < I will tell you, though, that between the two of you, Kaeritha, and Vaijon, you’ve done more damage to the Dark Gods’ access to this universe than you can imagine. > Walsharno and Bahzell sensed his fierce satisfaction, his pride in them. < I suspect none of them would be willing to admit it, especially not to themselves, but they’re actually afraid of you. That’s one of the reasons they’ve waited, and if they had a choice, they wouldn’t cross swords with you — or me — again even now. But they don’t have a choice. Those threads I mentioned aren’t just flowing together any longer; they’re becoming a cascade, gathering power like snowmelt in the East Walls, the sort of flood that washes away mountains, and it could turn in any of dozens of directions. Be warned, My Swords — there are few limits to what they will do to control that direction if they can. >
And here they’ve been so shy and hesitant about all they’ve been doing so far, Bahzell thought in a wondering tone, and Tomanak chuckled.
< Fair enough, Bahzell, > he conceded. < Fair enough. But rejoice in what you’ve accomplished so far, the two of you, and rest here until Dathgar and Tellian and Tarith and the others are ready to travel once more. It will take more than a day or two for most of those who wish you ill to discover just how badly yesterday’s ambush failed. >
Bahzell looked at Walsharno as he felt a huge, immaterial hand rest on his shoulder for just an instant. Then it was gone, and as he drew a deep breath he realized the entire conversation had taken place between one heartbeat and the next, without Hathan or Gayrhalan sensing a thing about it.
“Aye, Hathan,” he said, resuming the conversation the other wind rider had no idea had ever been interrupted, “it’s lucky we were to lose so few. And speaking of luck,” he straightened, smiling wickedly, “what say the lot of us go have a word or three with those lads as were giving oath to Tomanak yesterday? I’ve the oddest feeling as how it might just be they’ll find it in their hearts to be telling us what it is we’d like to know.”
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