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Welcome back, Prince Bahzell. And you, too, Lord Brandark. Tellian Bowmaster, Baron of Balthar and Lord Warden of the West Riding, smiled with a genuine warmth some might have found surprising as he greeted his visitors. Tellians tenor voice was melodious enough, but it always sounded a bit strange coming from someone who stood six and a half inches over six feet in height. As was true of many of the oldest noble houses of the Sothoii, members of the Bowmaster clan tended to be very tall, for humans, and Tellian was no exception.

Its thankful for the welcome we are, the taller of the new arrivals replied in a deep bass that sounded not at all strange rumbling up out of the massive chest of a hradani who stood well over seven and a half feet in his stockings. Still and all, Im thinking you might want to be making that welcome a mite less obvious, Milord.

Why? Tellian smiled crookedly as he waved Bahzell and his companion towards chairs at the long refectory table before the fire blazing on the hearth. That hearth was big enough to consume entire trees but, like most fires on the rolling grasslands of the Wind Plain, it burned coal, not wood. Those who believe I have even the faintest notion of what Im doing wont be bothered by it. And those who are convinced I dont have any notion wont like me any more just because I pretend to sulk when you cross my threshold. That being so, I might as well at least be polite!

A succinct analysis, Milord, the smaller of the two hradani observed with a chuckle. At six feet two inches, Brandark Brandarkson was shorter than Tellian, far less Bahzell, and he dressed like someone who was as close to an overcivilized fop as any hradani could hope to come. But he was almost squat with muscle, and the shoulders under his exquisitely cut doublets and waistcoats were almost as broad as Bahzells. Despite his shorter stature, he was one of the very few people who came close to matching Bahzells lethality in a fight, which had been a handy thing, from time to time, for he was also a bard. Of sorts.

The hradani language was well suited to long, rolling cadences, and richly evocative verse and song. That was good, for during the darkest periods of their twelve centuries in Norfressa, it was only the oral traditions of their generally illiterate bards which had kept any of their history alive. Even today, bards were more honored among the hradani than among any other Norfressan people, except, perhaps, the elven lords of Saramantha, and Brandark had the soul of a bard. He was also a brilliant, completely self-educated scholar, and a talented musician. But not even his closest friends were willing to pretend that he could actually sing, and his poetry was almost as bad as his voice. He yearned to craft the epic poems to express the beauty his soul reached out to and what he actually produced was doggerel. Witty, entertaining, trenchant doggerel, to be sure, but doggerel. Which perhaps explained his habit of writing biting, sometimes savage satire. Indeed, hed spent years baiting Prince Churnazh of Hurgrumsomething no one else had dared to doand only the deadliness of the swordsman hiding beneath his foppish exterior had kept him alive while he did it.

Those days were behind him now, but his broad grin suggested that his inner satirist found the entire situation which had engulfed his friend and the Sothoii enormously entertaining.

Which Bahzell did not.

Succinct is all well and good, the Horse Stealer growled at his friend. But theres enough as would like to see the two of us fall flat on our arses as it is, without us looking all happy to be seeing one another.

No doubt we should maintain a proper decorum in more public venues, Tellian conceded. But this is my home, Bahzell. Ill damned well greet anyone I want any way I want in it.

I cant say as I can fault you there, Bahzell said after a moment. Mind you, Im thinking theres more Sothoii would rather see my head on a pike over your gate than my backside in this chair in front of your fire!

Not many more than the number of hradani whod like to see my head over your fathers gate in Hurgrum, I imagine, Tellian replied with a wry smile. Although at least you didnt surrender an entire invasion army to a ragtag force of hradani you outnumbered thirty- or forty-to-one.

But at least Prince Bahzell was also good enough to grant us all parole, Wind Brother, a shorter, stockier Sothoii pointed out.

Yes, Hathan, Tellian agreed. And I accepted his offerwhich only makes those who would already have been prepared to be disgusted feel that the honor of all Sothoii has been mortally affronted, as well. They just cant decide if theyre more furious with me for the travesty of my surrender or with Bahzell for the humiliation of his acceptance of it!

With all due respect, Baron, Brandark said, nodding his thanks as he reached for the wine glass Hathan had filled for him, Id say let them feel as affronted as they want to feel as long as what you and Bahzell are up to manages to keep your people from one anothers throats. And speaking purely for myself, of course, and admitting that its remotely possible I might be slightly prejudiced, I happen to feel you did exactly the right thing, since any solution which left my personal head on my shoulders was a good one. Which, of course, only underscores the brilliance and wisdom of the people who arrived at it.

Several of the humans seated at the table chuckled, yet their laughter had a darker edge. Tellians decision to surrender the unauthorized invasion force Mathian Redhelm had led down the Gullet to attack the city state of Hurgrum was the only thing which had prevented the massacre of the first hradani chapter of the Order of Tomanak in Norfressan history. It had also prevented the sack of Hurgrum, the slaughter of innocent women and children, and quite probably a new and even bloodier war between Sothoii and hradani.

Unfortunately, not everyoneand not just on the Sothoii sidehad been in favor of preventing all those things.

Its truly remarkable how frantically we all cling to our most treasured hatreds, Brandark thought. And even though I would have said it was impossible, these Sothoii are even more bloody-minded about that than hradani are.

You may be prejudiced, Brandark, Tellian said in a more serious tone, but that doesnt make you wrong. And at least the King seems prepared to go along with us for now.

For now, Bahzell agreed.

And while thats true, we need to make as much progress as we can, Tellian continued. Perhaps we can actually manage to turn his acceptance into enthusiastic support.

Its certainly to be hoped so, Bahzell said. And Father is after agreeing with you. I passed on your message to him, and he says as how, if youre willing, hes thinking it might be best for him to be sending another score or so of his lads up the Gullet to fill out my guards. The towering hradani shrugged, and his foxlike ears twitched gently back and forth. For myself, Id sooner not have any guards.

Ive explained that before, Bahzell, Tellian half-sighed. You may not be an official ambassador, but thats one of the roles youve got to play. And if you expect a batch of stiff-necked Sothoii to take you seriously as an ambassador, youd better have a proper retinue.

Aye, youve explained it, right enough, Bahzell agreed. And seeing as how Father agrees with you, and hes after being one of the canniest men Ive yet to meet, Ill not say youre wrong. But its in my mind that if I was after being one of those of your folk as dont think this is just the very best idea anyone ever had, then Id not like to see a jumped up barbarian like me bringing in any more swords to stand behind him.

Youd need a lot more men than your father is talking about sending before you could pose any sort of credible threat to the Kingdom, Tellian pointed out. Again, Bahzell. Youve got to play the part properly, and having your father send you the guards your position demands isnt going to upset anyone who wasnt already prepared to be upset with us. So for Toragans sake, stop worrying about it!

Bahzell regarded his host thoughtfully across the table for several seconds, then shrugged. He still wasnt certain he agreed with Tellian, and he was certain he wanted to do nothing which might make the Sothoii barons position any more precarious than he had to. But if Tellian, his father and mother, his sister Marglyth, and even Brandark were all in agreement, it was obviously time for him to close his mouth and accept their advice.

Well, seeing as youre all so set on it, Ill say no more against it, he said mildly.

Tomanak preserve us! Brandark exclaimed. My ears must be deceiving me. I could swear I just heard Bahzell Bahnakson say something reasonable!

Just you keep it up, little man. Im thinking it should make an impressive funeral.

Brandark twitched his ears impudently at his towering friend, and another, louder chuckle ran around the table.

If you keep threatening me, Brandark said warningly, Ill have you trodden on. It wont be that hard, you know. He elevated his prominent nose with a disdainful sniff. Dathgar and Gayrhalan both like me much more than they like you.

Oh-ho! Tellian laughed and shook his head. Thats a lower blow than that song of yours, Brandark! Coursers have memories as long as Sothoii and hradani combined!

I prefer to think of it not so much as a matter of remembered past grievances as a case of exquisite and refined present good taste, Brandark replied. Then he shrugged. Of course, the fact that theyve spent the better part of a thousand years thinking of Horse Stealers as their natural mortal enemies might play some small part in it, I suppose.

Aye, that they have, Bahzell rumbled. And, truth to tell, Im thinking as how I dont blame them if it should happen as how theyre wanting to carry a grudge. At least theyve been civil enough.

The baron might have chosen to make a joke of it, but it hadnt always been a laughing matter. And for many Sothoiiand coursersit still wasnt. The Horse Stealers traditional taste for horseflesh had always been grossly exaggeratedby themselves, often enough. Their habit of eating warhorses killed in combat had been the product of their bitter, unrelenting hatred for the humans whod sought their extermination when first the Sothoii came to the Wind Plaina case of striking back at their enemies in the way they knew would hurt them worst . Theyd never made a practice of slaughtering live warhorses for the pot, however. That particular charge had been the product of Sothoii demonization of their foes, because the Horse Stealers had been right about how they would react. The Sothoii had regarded it as proof of the hradanis subhuman, blood soaked barbarian status. For the coursers, however, it had been the equivalent of cannibalism. To the best of Bahzells knowledge, thered been only two cases of coursers themselves being eaten in the entire bloody history of his peoples endless battles with the Sothoii, and the coursers knew that as well as he did. But as Tellian had just said, coursers had long memories. It was fortunate that they were at least a little less prone than humans or hradani to visit responsibility for the sins of the fathers upon the sons.

A little less prone, at any rate.

Really? Brandark glanced at him sidelong. Are you saying you didnt really need that doublet Gayrhalan tore to shreds while you were wearing it?

Well, as to that, Bahzell replied with a calmness hed been very far from feeling on the day in question, Im thinking as how Gayrhalan was after being in a bad mood that day. And Ill ask you to be taking note of the fact that he never drew any blood at all, at all. It hed been so minded, its an arm I would have been losing, and not just a doublet.

That really is true, Hathan agreed, and shook his head, grinning wryly at the memory of his companions fractious mood. And it was at least partly my fault, too. I was a bit clumsy with my hoof knife that morning.

No, you werent, Tellian snorted. Gayrhalan flinched and tossed you halfway across the stable when that stupid warhorse stallion of Trianals slammed into the other side of the wall. How you managed to avoid really gashing him is more than Ill ever know. And Dathgar happens to agree with me, however unscrupulously Gayrhalan may try to shuffle the blame off on to you, Wind Brother!

You may be right, Hathan acknowledged with a slow smile, then chuckled. I may have known one or two coursers with tempers worse than Gayrhalans, but I know I havent known three of them. Theres a reason for his name, you know.

He chuckled again, louder, and Bahzell grinned at him. Gayrhalan meant Storm Souled in the Sothoii tongue, and the courser seemed to feel an almost Brandark-like obligation to live up to the image it conjured.

They do say that coursers become more like their riders, and wind riders become more like their coursers, Hathan continued, and since Gayrhalan and I were both already a bit on the obnoxious side before we ever met

He shrugged, and the laughter was even louder this time.

For all that, though, the wind rider continued after a moment, his tone at least marginally more serious, he truly was just showing his temper, however ungracious of him it may have been.

Oh, never fear, Hathan! There was never after being any least doubt in my mind on that score! Its battleaxes Ive seen with blades less impressive than your outsized friends teeth. Bahzell shook his head. It was then and there that I was after making up my mind not to be calling on himor on Dathgar, for that matterwithout Id been formally invited.

How uncharacteristically wise of you, Brandark murmured in a mildly maliciously provocative voice.

Bahzell made a rude gesture at him, but the truth was that both Tellians and Hathans companions continued to regard all hradani, but especially all Horse Stealer hradani, with profound reservations. Given that a courser was one of the very few creatures on the face of the earth who could reduce a Horse Stealer to so much gory, trampled jelly, he was eminently prepared to give them as wide a berth as they desired for as long as they wanted it. However magnificent they might be, and however quickly hradani might heal, now that hed finally seen them at close quarters, he preferred his bones unbroken.

Ive no doubt weve more than enough other matters to be discussing, Milord, he continued, returning his attention to Tellian. Just for a beginning, Father says he and Kilthan have been talking over your notion of a three-way trade up the Escarpment, and hes of a mind to agree youve hit on an excellent idea. But Ive a few matters that need doing for the Order, as well, and Ive messages for Hurthang from Vaijon. Would it be that he and Kaeritha are somewhere about the place?

None of us expected you back before tomorrow, Hathan replied for the baron, and the two of them went over to the temple this morning. Theyre not back yet, but we can certainly send word for them to return if its urgent.

Well, as to that, Bahzell said, pushing his chair back and coming to his feet, Im thinking theres no need to be rousting out one of your people to run messages. I need to be dropping by the temple myself, so if its all the same to you, Milord, he nodded to Tellian, Ill just be heading over that way.


Chapter Two | Wind Rider's Oath | * * *