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Chapter Thirty-Four

Youre walking better than I expected, Brandark said with a smile as Bahzell stepped out onto the manor houses veranda in the gathering dusk.

And arent you after being just the most humorous little man in the world? Bahzell rumbled, easing himself down to sitgingerlyon the verandas wide rail.

If Im not, its not because of lack of effort or native talent, Brandark replied, his smile slipping over into a grin as Bahzell grimaced in evident discomfort. Is your backside very sore, Milord Champion?

Well, as to that, its not so much my arse as my legs. Bahzell snorted, and then rotated his left shoulder with obvious caution. And Ill not deny as how that last tumble wasnt after being the very most pleasant experience a man might have enjoyed.

No, I could see that,Brandark said, gazing at him judiciously. On the other hand, I dont believe Ive ever seen anyone attempt to pack a six-month course of riding lessons into less than a week before, either. Especially not a Horse Stealer. He tilted his prominent nose upward and sniffed audibly. Unlike us compact and skilled Bloody Swords, you poor, oversized amateurs look like sacks of dried horse dung in the saddle. You dont think you and Walsharno might be overdoing things just a bit, given your native disadvantages, do you?

Its not as if we were after having much choice about it, Bahzell pointed out, his tone far more serious than Brandarks had been. If were to be honest about it, weve spent too long on it already.

You promised Kelthys, Brandark riposted.

Aye, that I did, Bahzell acknowledged, his subterranean bass voice heavy. He rose and walked across to the outer edge of the veranda, his footsteps heavier than usual in the new riding boots Lord Edinghas cobbler had finished only the day before. He gazed up at the stars, and they gleamed back down at him with distant, emotionless beauty while the thin crescent of the Maidens fragile new moon hung low on the horizon.

I did promise, he said, his eyes on the stars, yet Im thinking it might have been best if Id not listened to him. Theres a foulness here, Brandarkone such as you and I have never faced yet, not even in Sharna s temple. Ive no least business taking others into such a stench of evil as this. Theres death in it, and worse than death could ever be.

I know, Brandark said very quietly, his voice for once untouched by any hint of levity.

Bahzell turned to look at him, ears cocked and eyebrows arched, and the Bloody Sword shrugged.

Chesmirsa may have told me Ill never be a bard, Bahzell, but I spent all those years studying every ballad, every lay, every epic poem I could get my hands on. And, with all due modesty, I think Ive demonstrated that Im a fair hand as a researcher. As soon as Tomanak warned youwarned all of us, reallyabout whats out there, I knew what he was talking about. Did you think I didnt?

No, Bahzell admitted, and shook his head. No, little man. I might be after wishing you hadnt, but there was never the least tiniest chance you wouldnt. But thats not to say as how Im eager to be seeing you in the midst of such as this.

I suppose that sort of thing happens to people foolish enough to hang about with champions of Tomanak, Brandark replied lightly. Then he cocked his head, ears half-forward curiously. All the same, I have to admit that Im just a bit surprised that if it is Krahana a chill breeze seemed to blow across the verandah as the name was spoken at last she hasnt already put in an appearance here. Id think that for someone like her, this whole place he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the manor houses lamplit windows would be like one huge cookie jar she could hardly wait to get her claws into.

Well, as to that, Bahzell said, its in my mind that its not so very likely shes after being here herself. Or, at least, not that shell be feeling all that eager to draw himself into meeting her personally. He smiled, a thin smile, remarkably devoid of humor. Krahana isnt after being the very smartest of the Dark Gods. Shes nowhere near the brain of Carnadosa, for example. But shes not so stupid as some, and shes seen what was after happening to Sharna when he crossed swords, in a manner of speaking, with Himself.

Ill not say shes not after being willing to risk a bit of a confrontation, but it will be in her mind as how it will be on her terms, not Himselfs. So Im thinking as how what were most likely to be after seeing will be her Servants. What you might be calling her champions. And theyre not so very likely to be attacking us here.

And just why arent they? Brandark asked.

Because Ive asked Himself to see to it that they cant, Bahzell said simply, and Brandark blinked at him.

You can do that? he asked.

Aye, Bahzell said dryly. Its after being called prayer, Im thinking.

Prayer! Brandark snorted. Bahzell, even Kaeritha has to admit that you have your own, thankfully unique way of speaking to Tomanak. For that matter, Ive seenand heardit myself, you know. And Im not so sure that anyone except you would ever describe it as prayer.

Its good enough for Himself and me to be going on with, Bahzell informed him. And after Id seen what Gayrfressa and her folk had been after enduring, I asked Himself if Hed be so very kind as to see to it as how those as attacked them wouldnt be doing it again here. And after Id asked, He showed me how to be seeing to it myself.

He shrugged, and Brandarks eyebrows rose.

He showed you howto do it?

Oh, aye, Bahzell said in a casual, offhand sort of tone belied by the twinkle in his eye. Its not so very difficult, once youve been shown the way of it.

Which is? Brandark was practically quivering with the burning curiosity of a scholar, and Bahzell smiled.

Little man, your nose is all a-twitch with questions, and isnt that just a frightening thing to see when a mans so proud and fine a nose to twitch about?

Brandark shook a fist ferociously and took a stride towards him, and the Horse Stealer held up his hands in mock terror.

Now, dont you be after offering violence to a mild-mannered fellow like myself! he scolded. Brandark growled something under his breath, and Bahzell laughed.

Arent you after being just the most predictable fellow in the world when a mans after knowing the right lever to pull? he asked with a smile. But Id not like you to burst, or do yourself a mischief, so, in answer to your question, its not so very different from healing a wound or an illness.

You mean you act as Tomanaks channel?

In a manner of speaking. Its not just Himselftheres after being a mite of me in there, as wellbut thats the bones of it. Its like like healing a place, not a person. Ill not say as how its a protection strong enough to be after standing against all the forces of hell, but its set a circle about Lord Edinghas home manor as nothing short of Krahana herself is going to want to be crossing. Yet its not something I can be taking with us when we go, Brandark. And it wont be after lasting forever once I leave.

So thats why you were willing to promise Kelthys youd wait, Brandark said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

Aye. Bahzell agreed. It was in my mind as how Krahanas lot would be after coming here, to be finishing what theyd once begun. And, truth to tell, I was minded to meet them here, with the other lads from the Order and Himselfs protections in place to be giving us an edge. But now Im thinking that if theyd been minded to be coming this way, wed already have been after seeing them. He shrugged, then frowned. And since it seems theyll not be coming here, then its no choice I have but to be going there.

And once we ride out of Warm Springs, well be leaving its protection behind us, Brandark said, nodding slowly. Thats why youre so unhappy you didnt try to stop Kelthys from calling in his wind riders after all.

Aye, for its not just a matter of the protections here that well be leaving behind, Bahzell said somberly. Ive no way of knowing just what sort of champion Krahana may have been after sending here. For aught I know whoeveror whateverhe is, he may have been after summoning up his own version of a protected a circle from her. And if thats the way of it, Brandark, then Ive no way at all, at all, of knowing what those as try to cross it may find themselves facing.

I understand that, Bahzell, Brandark said quietly. But you have to understand that theres not a one of usnot me, not the Orders lads, and not Kelthys and his wind riderswho hasnt thought long and hard about this. You may not know what well find, and we certainly cant know, until weve done it. But its not as if all of us dont know that going in.

Brandark, this is nothing a man should be facing out of friendship, Bahzell said, speaking just as quietly as Brandark. Tomanak knows Ive never had a friend so close as youve somehow gotten. Ill not embarrass either of us by pounding what that friendships after meaning to me into the ground. But this I will be telling you, Brandark Brandarksontheres naught in this world Im wanting less than to see you riding north beside me.

Im sorry to hear that, Brandark said levelly, because you dont have much choice about it.


Just what makes you believe you have the right to tell me, or anyone elseincluding Kelthys and the other wind riderswhat we have the right to face? Youre a champion of Tomanak, Bahzell. We all know that. And we all know that facing Krahana is the sort of challenge Tomanak chooses His champions to face. We know the brunt of it is going to fall on you and the other lads of the Order, and that nothing we can do will change that. And so what?

And so its not making any sense at all, at all, for the lot of you to be running up against the like of Krahana. If Hurthang and Gharnal and I have it to do, then whats the sense in risking others alongside us?

Are you going to try to tell Walsharno that he cant go along? If so, then youve just spent the last four days wearing the seat out of your breeches and pounding your arse flat for nothing!

Well, as to that, Bahzell began, Walsharno is after

Dont start any circumlocutions with me, Bahzell Bahnakson! Youre not leaving him behind because you know he wouldnt stay, whatever you tried to insist upon. And, in the second place, because the two of you each know exactly what the other is thinking and feelingreally thinking and feeling.

The shorter hradani held his massive friends eye almost defiantly in the lamplight streaming out of the manor house windows to throw their black shadows across the veranda. And this time, it was Bahzell who looked away.

You know he wants to go and why. And its not just because the two of you have bonded with one another. He wants to go because he hates and despises and loathes Krahana as much as any of us. Because he wants vengeance for the herd he grew up in before he left for the Bear River herd. And because its his righthis right, Bahzellto choose to fight evil when he sees it.

Well, thats my right, too. And Kelthys. And the right of the other coursers, and of the other wind riders. All that good men have to do to allow the Dark to triumph is to do nothing to stop it when they find it before them.

Brandark stopped speaking and drew a deep breath, then chuckled with something approaching his normal insouciance.

I hope you took notes, Bahzell, he said lightly. Because unless you did, I doubt very much that youll manage to keep it all straight later. And also because youre not going to hear me getting that sloppy and emotional very often.

No, Bahzell said softly. No, that Im not. He looked back up at the stars again for several endless seconds, then inhaled deeply, nodded to the nail-paring moon, and slapped the Bloody Sword lightly on the shoulder.

All right, little man, he rumbled. Youve the right of it, when alls said. And even if you hadnt, Tomanak knows youre nigh as stubborn as a Horse Stealer.

Please! Brandark gave him a very pained look. No one, this side of a Sothoii or a lump of granite is as stubborn as a Horse Stealer hradani! Its a law of naturea physical impossibility. Its a well known and clearly demonstrated fact that nothing short of six solid inches of skull bone can produce your genuine Horse Stealer stubbornness. I refer you to the treatise by

His tone of lordly superiority disappeared into a sudden squawk as two shovel-sized hands plucked him easily off the veranda, despite his own two hundred and seventy pounds of solid muscle and bone. He flailed wildly as he sailed through the air, but it was a relatively short journey which ended in a tremendous splash as he alit far from gracefully upon the surface of Lady Sofallas fishpond.

Chapter Thirty-Three | Wind Rider's Oath | * * *