War Maid’s Choice – Snippet 23

Chapter Six

Rain pattered down on the roofs of Hill Guard castle. It was a little late in the year for the persistent, day-long, soaking rains of spring’s first blush, and not quite early enough for the short-lived, torrential afternoon thunderstorms of midsummer, but there was enough water in the air to go around, Bahzell reflected, standing under the overhanging roof which projected over the central keep’s massively timbered front door. And probably enough to fill the Bogs knee-deep and send the overflow gushing down the old riverbed to join the water from Chanharsa’s tunnel culverts, he thought, regarding the waterfalls streaming like finely beaded curtains from the eaves of that protecting roof. That would be one explanation for the condition in which Baron Tellian’s latest guest had arrived at his ancestral keep above the city of Balthar.

Bahzell’s lips twitched in amusement as the muddy, soaked-to-the-skin, plainly dressed warrior climbed down from his saddle in Hill Guard’s courtyard, for the newcomer bore precious little resemblance to the dandified, arrogant Sir Vaijon of Almerhas he’d first met the better part of ten years ago in Belhadan. The changes were much for the better, in Bahzell’s opinion, although he hated to think about how Vaijon’s father must have reacted the first time his wandering son returned for a visit. The beautiful, jeweled sword at Vaijon’s side was about all that was left of his onetime sartorial splendor, and that sword had been even more profoundly changed than Vaijon himself.

“And aren’t you just the drowned rat?” the massive hradani inquired genially as Vaijon climbed the steps towards him while one of Tellian’s grooms led his horse towards the stable at a brisk pace.

“Drowned, certainly,” Vaijon agreed wryly, reaching out to clasp forearms with him. “The Gullet’s hock deep in a lot of places, and cold, too — somebody forgot to tell Chemalka it’s spring, I think — but surely you can find something better than a rat to compare me to!”

“Oh, I’m sure I could, if it happened I was so minded,” Bahzell replied, returning his clasp firmly.

“Which you aren’t. I see.” Vaijon nodded, then turned to Brandark, and extended his hand to the Bloody Sword in turn. “You could come to my assistance here, you know.”

“I could…if it happened I was so minded,” Brandark said with a grin, and Vaijon heaved a vast sigh.

“Not bad enough that I’m doomed to spend my life among barbarian hradani, but they have to insult me at every opportunity, as well.”

“Aye, it’s a hard lot you’ve drawn, and no mistake,” Bahzell’s tone was commiserating, but his eyes twinkled and his ears twitched in amusement.

“Yes, it is.” Vaijon pushed back the hood of his poncho, showing golden hair which had once been elegantly coiffed but which he now wore in a plain warrior’s braid very much like Bahzell’s own. The Sothōii-style leather sweatband he’d adopted made him look older and tougher, somehow (not that he wasn’t quite tough enough without it, as Bahzell knew even better than most), and the past six years had put laugh lines around his eyes and weathered his complexion to a dark, burnished bronze. At six and a half feet in height, Vaijon was “short” only in comparison to a Horse Stealer like Bahzell, and with his thirty-second birthday just past, he was settling into the prime of his life.

“The bit from Hurgrum to the Gullet wasn’t so bad, now that they’ve got the locks open all the way,” he continued. “A lot faster and easier than the first time I made that particular trip, at least! But I, for one, will be delighted once the tunnel finally breaks through and my poor horse doesn’t have to swim all the way to the top of the damned Escarpment whenever there’s a little sprinkle! I said as much to Chanharsa when I passed through, too. I even took her a basket of your mother’s cookies as a bribe, Bahzell. I was sure that would inspire her to greater efforts! But she only laughed at me.” He heaved a vast sigh. “I never would’ve guessed dwarves were just as disrespectful of birth and position as hradani.”

“Well, I suppose the least we can be doing is to get you out of the rain now you’re here,” Bahzell told him. “Tellian was all set to come out and greet you his own self, but I told him as how he should be staying right where he was.” The hradani’s expression darkened slightly. “I’m not liking that cough of his one bit, and the man’s too stubborn to be calling in a healer. Or letting me deal with it, come to that.”

“Is he still coughing?” Vaijon’s asked, blue eyes narrowing as he followed the two hradani into the keep and down a flagstoned corridor. It was a sign of how much things had changed in Balthar over the past six or seven years that none of the human armsmen or servants they encountered along the way so much as turned a hair when the unlikely trio passed them. Indeed, most of them smiled and nodded respectfully to Bahzell and his guest.

“Aye, that he is. Mind you, it’s not so bad as it was this winter past, but it’s easier in my mind I’d be if he could just be shut of it once and for all.” Bahzell grimaced, ears flattening slightly. “There’s no reason at all, at all, I can see why he isn’t shut of it, and I’m none so pleased when someone as so many like so little is after being plagued by something like this. No doubt it’s naught but my nasty, suspicious mind speaking, and so he’s told me plain enough — aye, and more than a mite testy he was about it, too — but I’m thinking it’s worn him down more than he’s minded to admit even to himself.” He shrugged. “Any road, Hanatha was more than happy to be helping me scold him into staying parked by the fire.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Vaijon said testily. “This isn’t the time for him to be sick, especially not with something that hangs on this way and won’t let go, wherever it came from. I know he realizes how much depends on him right now. Why can’t he grow up and let you take care of it for him?”

“And aren’t you just the feistiest thing?” Bahzell said with a laugh. “Not but what you’ve a point.” He shrugged again. “And I’ll not be brokenhearted if it should be you’ve more success than I at making him see reason. There’s times I think he’s stubborner than a hradani!”

“Ha! No one’s stubborner than a hradani, Bahzell! If anyone in the entire world’s learned that by now, it’s me.”

“A bit of the pot and the kettle in that, Vaijon,” Brandark pointed out mildly.

“And a damned good thing, too, given the job He and Bahzell have handed me,” Vaijon retorted.

“Actually, you might have a point there,” Brandark conceded after a moment. “And speaking as someone who always wanted to be a bard, I can’t help noticing that there’s a wagonload or two of poetic irony in where you’ve ended up, Vaijon.”

“I’m so glad I’m able to keep you amused,” Vaijon said.

“Oh, no! Keeping me amused is Bahzell’s job!” Brandark reassured Vaijon, as they turned a corner and started up the steps to the keep’s second floor.

“You just keep laughing, little man,” Bahzell told him. “I’m thinking it would be a dreadful pity if such as you were to be suddenly falling down these stairs. And back up them — a time or two — now that I think on it. It’s a fine bouncing ball you’d make.”

Brandark started to reply, then stopped and contented himself with an amused shake of his head as Bahzell opened a door and led him and Vaijon into a well lit, third-floor council chamber. Diamond-paned windows looked out over the gray, rainy courtyard, but a cheerful coal fire crackled in the grate and a huge, steaming teapot sat in the middle of the polished table. The red-gold-haired man seated at the head of the table, closest to the fire, looked up as Vaijon and the hradani entered the chamber.

“Good morning, Vaijon!” Sir Tellian Bowmaster, Baron of Balthar and Lord Warden of the West Riding, said. He rose, holding out his hand, then coughed. The sound wasn’t especially harsh, but it was deep in his throat and chest, with a damp, hollow edge, and Vaijon frowned as they clasped forearms in greeting.

“Good morning to you, Milord,” he replied, forearms still clasped. “And why haven’t you let Bahzell deal with that cough of yours?”

“Well, that’s coming straight to the point,” Tellian observed, arching his eyebrows.

“I’ve been dealing with hradani too long to beat about the bush, Milord,” Vaijon said. “And since, at the moment, you have not one but two champions of Tomanāk right here in your council chamber, it seems to me to be a pretty fair question.”

“It’s only a cough, Vaijon,” Tellian replied, releasing his forearm. “I’m not going to run around panicking just because I don’t shake off a winter cough as quickly as I did when I was Trianal’s age. And there’s no need to be asking a champion — or two champions — to waste Tomanāk’s time on something that minor!”