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Chapter Twenty-Three

Edinghas Bardiche knew his expression wasnt the most tactful one possible, but there wasnt a great deal he could do about that. He was too busy gazing in disbelief at his newly arrived guests.

He stood in the muddy paddock outside the main stable, acutely aware of the watching eyes of the Warm Springs armsmen currently on duty, still ringing the building protectively. Alfar Axeblade stood before him, holding the reins of a borrowed horse, and eight hradani stood behind Alfarseven of them in the colors of the Order of Tomanak. It was remotely possible, Edinghas thought, that there could have been a more unlikely sight somewhere in the Kingdom. He just couldnt imagine where it might have been. Or when.

Finally, after endless seconds of silent consternation, he succeeded in goading his tongue to life.

I crave your pardon Milord Champion, he managed. I must confess that when I dispatched Alfar to the Baron, I didnt anticipate that he might return with a That is, I didnt expect a champion of Tomanak.

His attention was focused on the mountainous hradani looming before him, yet a corner of his eye caught the expression on Alfars face. He couldnt begin to sort out all of the emotions wrapped up in that expression, but embarrassment and something almost like anger seemed to be a part of them. His retainer opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the hradani glanced at him with a tiny head shake, and Alfars mouth closed with an almost audible click.

What youre meaning, Milord Warden, the hradani replied in a deep, rumbling bass perfectly suited to his huge stature, is that you were never expecting a hradani champion.

Edinghas felt his tired face heat, but the hradani sounded almost amused. It might be a dry, biting amusement, but it wasnt the anger the lord wardens self-correction might all too easily have provoked.

Yes, I suppose that is what I meant, he admitted.

Well, the hradani said, I wont say as how thats after making me feel all warm and cuddly inside, Milord. On the other hand, I cant be saying as how its after surprising me, either. Like enough, Id feel the same, if the boot were on the other foot. Still and all, here I stand, and its in my mind that whats happened here is after being the sort of thing as one of Himselfs champions ought to be looking into.

I certainly cant argue with that, Edinghas said. But I hope I wont offend you by saying that my armsmen are likely to be even more surprised than me.

Milord. Alfars voice was polite but firm, and Edinghas looked at him, surprised by the interruption. Milord, Alfar repeated when he was certain he had his lieges attention, Sir Jahlahan, Baron Tellians seneschal, personally vouches for Prince Bahzell in the Barons name and explains how he came to be in Balthar when I arrived there. His wave indicated the still unopened message from Swordspinner in Edinghas hand. And for myself, he continued, even more firmly, I can only say that, hradani or no, these men have not spared themselves for a moment in their determination to reach Warm Springs as quickly as possible. Milord, they ran all the way from Balthar.

Edinghas eyebrows rose involuntarily. Sothoii retainers and freeholders, especially in a northern holding like Warm Springs, were a sturdy, independent lot. It had something to do with endless hours spent all alone on horseback in the grassy immensity of the Wind Plainor in the howling chaos of a midwinter blizzard. Yet for all that, the note of near rebuke in Alfars voice surprised him.

He shook himself, then looked back at the hradani. No, he told himself, at Prince Bahzell.

I crave your pardon once again, Milord Champion, he said, and this time his voice sounded closer to normal in his own ears. Alfars right. I ought to at least read Lord Swordspinners dispatch. And however surprised I may have been by your unexpected arrival, that surprise doesnt excuse my rudeness.

Id not be calling it rude, Bahzell replied. He smiled slowly. Id not be calling it exactly the warmest welcome Ive ever had, but its not after being the coldest, either. Not by a long road, Milord.

Its good of you to say so. Edinghas felt himself returning Bahzells smile. Then he gave himself another little shake. With your permission, Prince Bahzell, Ill ask Alfar to escort you to the manor house. He can get you and your men settled in there while I repair my error and read what Lord Swordspinner has to say. And, he met Bahzells eyes levelly, while I have a few words with my armsmen, as well.

Aye, Id not say that was so very bad an idea, the hradani agreed.

Thank you. Genuine gratefulness for the others attitude touched Edinghas tone, and he returned his gaze to Alfar. Please take Prince Bahzell and his men up to the house, he said. Tell Lady Sofalla that theyll be our guests for at least the next few days.

Alfar nodded, but Edinghas attention had already returned to Bahzell. The hradani gazed back at him for a moment, his face almost expressionless. But then he bowed, very slightly, and Edinghas saw the understanding in his eyes. The lord wardens decision against sending even a single armsman along with Alfar, even as only a courteous escort, on the trip to his familys private home was the strongest possible way for him to express his trust.

Its grateful we are, Bahzell rumbled, and turned to follow Alfar towards the fortified manor house that was the closest Warm Springs had to a proper keep.

* * * | Wind Rider's Oath | * * *