“You’re walking better than I expected,” Brandark said with a smile as Bahzell stepped out onto the manor house’s veranda in the gathering dusk.
“And aren’t you after being just the most humorous little man in the world?” Bahzell rumbled, easing himself down to sit—gingerly—on the veranda’s wide rail.
“If I’m not, it’s 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, it’s not so much my arse as my legs.” Bahzell snorted, and then rotated his left shoulder with obvious caution. “And I’ll not deny as how that last tumble wasn’t 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 don’t believe I’ve 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 don’t think you and Walsharno might be overdoing things just a bit, given your native disadvantages, do you?”
“It’s not as if we were after having much choice about it,” Bahzell pointed out, his tone far more serious than Brandark’s had been. “If we’re to be honest about it, we’ve 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 Maiden’s fragile new moon hung low on the horizon.
“I did promise,” he said, his eyes on the stars, “yet I’m thinking it might have been best if I’d not listened to him. There’s a foulness here, Brandark—one such as you and I have never faced yet, not even in Sharna ’s temple. I’ve no least business taking others into such a stench of evil as this. There’s 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 I’ll 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 I’ve demonstrated that I’m a fair hand as a researcher. As soon as Tomanak warned you—warned all of us, really—about what’s out there, I knew what he was talking about. Did you think I didn’t?”
“No,” Bahzell admitted, and shook his head. “No, little man. I might be after wishing you hadn’t, but there was never the least tiniest chance you wouldn’t. But that’s not to say as how I’m 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 I’m 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 hasn’t already put in an appearance here. I’d think that for someone like her, this whole place—” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the manor house’s lamplit windows “— would be like one huge cookie jar she could hardly wait to get her claws into.
“Well, as to that,” Bahzell said, “it’s in my mind that it’s not so very likely she’s after being here herself. Or, at least, not that she’ll be feeling all that eager to draw himself into meeting her personally.” He smiled, a thin smile, remarkably devoid of humor. “Krahana isn’t after being the very smartest of the Dark Gods. She’s nowhere near the brain of Carnadosa, for example. But she’s not so stupid as some, and she’s seen what was after happening to Sharna when he crossed swords, in a manner of speaking, with Himself.
“I’ll not say she’s 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 Himself’s. So I’m thinking as how what we’re most likely to be after seeing will be her Servants. What you might be calling her ’champions.’ And they’re not so very likely to be attacking us here.”
“And just why aren’t they?” Brandark asked.
“Because I’ve asked Himself to see to it that they can’t,” Bahzell said simply, and Brandark blinked at him.
“You can do that?” he asked.
“Aye,” Bahzell said dryly. “It’s after being called prayer, I’m 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, I’ve seen—and heard—it myself, you know. And I’m not so sure that anyone except you would ever describe it as ’prayer.’ “
“It’s good enough for Himself and me to be going on with,” Bahzell informed him. “And after I’d seen what Gayrfressa and her folk had been after enduring, I asked Himself if He’d be so very kind as to see to it as how those as attacked them wouldn’t be doing it again here. And after I’d asked, He showed me how to be seeing to it myself.”
He shrugged, and Brandark’s 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. “It’s not so very difficult, once you’ve 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 isn’t that just a frightening thing to see when a man’s 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, don’t you be after offering violence to a mild-mannered fellow like myself!” he scolded. Brandark growled something under his breath, and Bahzell laughed.
“Aren’t you after being just the most predictable fellow in the world when a man’s after knowing the right lever to pull?” he asked with a smile. “But I’d not like you to burst, or do yourself a mischief, so, in answer to your question, it’s not so very different from healing a wound or an illness.”
“You mean you act as Tomanak’s channel?”
“In a manner of speaking. It’s not just Himself—there’s after being a mite of me in there, as well—but that’s the bones of it. It’s like … like healing a place, not a person. I’ll not say as how it’s a protection strong enough to be after standing against all the forces of hell, but it’s set a circle about Lord Edinghas’ home manor as nothing short of Krahana herself is going to want to be crossing. Yet it’s not something I can be taking with us when we go, Brandark. And it won’t be after lasting forever once I leave.”
“So that’s why you were willing to promise Kelthys you’d wait,” Brandark said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
“Aye.” Bahzell agreed. “It was in my mind as how Krahana’s lot would be after coming here, to be finishing what they’d once begun. And, truth to tell, I was minded to meet them here, with the other lads from the Order and Himself’s protections in place to be giving us an edge. But now I’m thinking that if they’d been minded to be coming this way, we’d already have been after seeing them.” He shrugged, then frowned. “And since it seems they’ll not be coming here, then it’s no choice I have but to be going there.”
“And once we ride out of Warm Springs, we’ll be leaving its protection behind us,” Brandark said, nodding slowly. “That’s why you’re so unhappy you didn’t try to stop Kelthys from calling in his wind riders after all.”
“Aye, for it’s not just a matter of the protections here that we’ll be leaving behind,” Bahzell said somberly. “I’ve no way of knowing just what sort of ’champion’ Krahana may have been after sending here. For aught I know whoever—or whatever—he is, he may have been after summoning up his own version of a protected a circle from her. And if that’s the way of it, Brandark, then I’ve 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 there’s not a one of us—not me, not the Order’s lads, and not Kelthys and his wind riders—who hasn’t thought long and hard about this. You may not know what we’ll find, and we certainly can’t know, until we’ve done it. But it’s not as if all of us don’t 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 I’ve never had a friend so close as you’ve somehow gotten. I’ll not embarrass either of us by pounding what that friendship’s after meaning to me into the ground. But this I will be telling you, Brandark Brandarkson—there’s naught in this world I’m wanting less than to see you riding north beside me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Brandark said levelly, “because you don’t have much choice about it.”
“Just what makes you believe you have the right to tell me, or anyone else—including Kelthys and the other wind riders—what we have the right to face? You’re 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 it’s 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 what’s the sense in risking others alongside us?”
“Are you going to try to tell Walsharno that he can’t go along? If so, then you’ve 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—”
“Don’t start any circumlocutions with me, Bahzell Bahnakson! You’re not leaving him behind because you know he wouldn’t 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 feeling—really thinking and feeling.”
The shorter hradani held his massive friend’s 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 it’s 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 it’s his right—his right, Bahzell—to choose to fight evil when he sees it.
“Well, that’s 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 you’ll manage to keep it all straight later. And also because you’re not going to hear me getting that sloppy and emotional very often.”
“No,” Bahzell said softly. “No, that I’m 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. “You’ve the right of it, when all’s said. And even if you hadn’t, Tomanak knows you’re 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! It’s a law of nature—a physical impossibility. It’s 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 Sofalla’s fishpond.